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Your Cat’s Tongue

your cat's tongue

Do you remember the very first time you were licked by a cat? If you had been used to the smooth sensation of a dog’s tongue then it was probably quite surprising to experience the rough feel of a cat’s tongue. If, however, you’ve lived with cats for many years, you probably don’t even think twice about that sandpaper sensation. Here are some facts about the cat’s tongue:

The Tongue is Covered with Papillae

The tongue of a cat has tiny, backward-facing barbs (papillae) on it and they’re the things that create that rough sensation. The barbs serve several important functions. They make it easier for a cat to rasp the meat from the bones of his prey. The barbs also aid in grooming as they collect dirt, debris and loose hair from the cat’s coat. The downside to the backward-facing barbs though is that anything the cat collects on her tongue will usually end up getting swallowed and that’s how your cat may end up with lots of hairballs. The barbs on the tongue also make it dangerous should your cat get some yarn, string or tinsel in his mouth because he won’t be able to spit it out.

Grooming for Survival

After a cat has eaten his prey he will groom to remove all traces. This is an important survival strategy because he doesn’t want to alert any other prey in the area to his presence. Additionally, a cat is small enough so he is not only a predator but potential prey as well. Removing traces of a fresh kill would be very important to his own safety as well.

cat licking paw

Photo: Shutterstock

Grooming for Comfort

Your cat will also use his tongue to groom himself to help keep cool through evaporation.

Grooming for Behavior

Grooming is also a displacement behavior and your cat may use his tongue to groom areas of his body if he feels stressed or anxious. Repeated grooming in the same area can actually cause bald patches. A cat will also use his tongue for social grooming. You may notice this if you have a multicat environment and you see two cats engaging in allogrooming.

Taste Buds

The cat’s tongue has fewer taste buds than a human has and interestingly, the cat, in general doesn’t have a taste for sweets. We probably create that habit and desire in our cats by feeding inappropriate foods.

cat with tongue out

Photo: Shutterstock

Food Texture Preference

The texture, size and shape of food are important to the cat and he may like or reject a certain food based on how it feels on his tongue.

Drinking Water

It used to be that experts thought the cat laps up water by curling the tip of the tongue into a makeshift spoon but recent research has shown that the cat actually drinks by curling the upper side of the tongue downward and then darts it across the surface of the water at a remarkably fast speed. This causes a column of water to rise up and the cat closes his mouth just in time to collect it before gravity allows the water to fall back down. The research was done by a group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Princeton.

Need More Information?

For more information on Pam’s “Think Like a Cat” behavior and training techniques, refer to any of her books, including the book considered the cat bible, Think Like a Cat.

Get your copy of Pam's best-selling guide to raising a well-adjusted catWe’re sorry but Pam is unable to respond to comments. If you have questions about cat behavior you can find many answers in the books by Pam Johnson-Bennett as well as in the articles on our site. If your cat is displaying a change in behavior, contact your veterinarian because there may be an underlying medical cause. This article is not intended to be a replacement for your cat’s veterinary care.

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