why do cats stick their tongue out?
Questions About Cats

What Does it Mean When Cats Stick Their Tongue Out?

You will often see a cat’s tongue hanging out its mouth when it’s staring into space. This is widely referred to as a ‘blep’, which is where a cat leaves a small amount of tongue on display for a small amount of time.

A cat that sticks out its tongue is likely granting a scent access to the vomeronasal organ. This is an organ in the mouth that allows a cat to fully process unique scents.

If your cat isn’t sick, sticking out the tongue isn’t a health concern. It’s a natural behavior that will last no more than a few minutes. If the cat cannot or will not close its mouth, then there may be a medical issue.

Why Does My Cat’s Tongue Hang Out Sometimes?

A cat’s tongue will stick out a little for the following reasons:

1/ Exploring a Scent

The most common reason for a cat to blep is to explore a new scent. This is known as the Flehmen response. If a cat picks up a unique scent, it wants to know more about it. Although a cat has a very good sense of smell, it can learn even more through the mouth.

Opening the mouth and sticking out the tongue exposes the nasopalatine canals. These are ducts round in the roof of a cat’s mouth. These ducts are connected to the vomeronasal organ (Jacobson’s organ.)

Cats have thirty scent receptors in the vomeronasal organ. This means the cat can fully acknowledge the subtleties of any scent, including pheromones. This makes the Flehmen response invaluable in understanding cat hormones.

Hormones and Behavior stated that the Flehmen response is linked to sexual behavior. The cat may be picking up on hormones from another feline. An intact tom will typically be detecting a female in estrus.

Even spayed and neutered cats regularly display the Flehmen response. Cats can detect the hormones in urine or feces. Waste can tell a cat a lot about the animal that left it. It will know if it should approach or be afraid.

2/ Foul Tastes

Cats are particular about what tastes good, but also very curious. Many cats explore the world with their mouths and dislike bad tastes.

If a cat has a foul taste in its mouth, it wants to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Tastes linger on a cat’s tongue for several hours. The cat will be reluctant to groom during this time.

By pointing out its tongue, the cat is not exposed to the taste. It hopes that elemental factors will remove the unpleasant taste faster.

3/ Vomiting

If your cat sticks out its tongue just after eating, it may vomit white foam. Cats often poke out tongues ahead of purging the stomach.

If you have changed your cat’s diet, it may not approve of the new food.

4/ Foreign Objects

A cat’s tongue is covered with tiny, backward-facing barbs. Cells Tissues Organs explains that these cone-shaped barbs are called filiform papillae. That is why your cat’s tongue feels like sandpaper when it licks you.

For a wild cat, the purpose of the filiform papillae is to tear flesh from the bones of prey. Naturally, domesticated cats rarely need to do this. A domesticated cat hunts smaller animals for sport, not food.

The filiform papillae still perform a valuable service. When a cat grooms, the filiform papillae traps and removes loose hair. This keeps your cat looking sleek, but the fur gets stuck to the tongue.

Cats can also get all manner of items stuck to the tongue. Grass, seeds, and plant buds will also pose a similar obstacle. They will all become trapped within the filiform papillae.

Many cats dislike this sensation Eventually, the cat will swallow. This is what causes hairballs. If they can, a cat prefers to get rid of the foreign object on the tongue by ‘blepping.’

The approach here is similar to how it deals with a foul taste. The cat is hoping that exposing the tongue will remove the foreign object.

5/ Relaxed Jaw

In some cases, a cat’s tongue will poke out because it is completely relaxed. This is a common sight in sleeping or anesthetized cats.

Naturally, this is not a significant concern. A relaxed cat is a happy cat. If your cat feels secure enough in your home so sleep so soundly, all is well.

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6/ Skull Structure

If your cat has recently experienced trauma to the skull, the jaw may have become misaligned. This will be painful and distressing.

According to the Canadian Veterinary Journal, temporomandibular joint luxation leaves cats unable to close their mouths. This dislocation can be rectified manually by a skilled vet.

Some cats are unable to close their mouths properly due to skull structure. This is common in brachycephalic cat breeds.  If a flat-faced cat is otherwise healthy, it’s not a problem. This is just a quirk of your cat’s genes.

Why Does My Cat’s Tongue Stick Out All the Time?

In some instances, a cat’s protruding tongue is not an active choice. A cat will expose its tongue because it is unable to close its mouth.

7/ Dental Problems

A cat experiencing dental pain will often leave its tongue out. A cat’s tongue brushes against the teeth. If the teeth are sore, this will cause a cat pain.

Cats experience two primary forms of dental issues. The first is tooth decay. This is rare. Cats have limited taste buds and cannot taste sweet food. Most cats will not rot their teeth through an inappropriate diet.

Periodontal disease is more common. This is the feline equivalent of gum disease. Almost all cats experience periodontal disease at some point. It becomes increasingly prevalent after the age of 3.

Periodontal disease is an inflammation of the gums. This leads to a range of dental problems for cats, including gingivitis.

Food and bacteria will become trapped between teeth and gums. This leads to a build-up of plaque and tartare. This will loosen a cat’s teeth, remove enamel, and expose the roots and nerves. This will be extremely painful.

The more discomfort a cat is in, the more reluctant it will be to close its mouth. The tongue will brush against teeth, aggravating the pain. 

My Older Cat’s Teeth Fell Out

Senior cats may lose teeth naturally with age. A cat’s tongue is kept inside the mouth by the bottom row of teeth.

If these teeth are missing, the tongue will protrude. This is not an undue concern as long as the teeth fall out organically. If a cat has had teeth removed by a vet, the same thing will occur.

The cat may or may not adapt to life without teeth. Again, do not worry about a protruding tongue if the cat is otherwise healthy.

8/ Breathing Issues

If a cat is struggling to breathe, it will be reluctant to close its mouth. This will often lead to tongue lolling.

Check the cat’s tongue. If the tongue is swollen, this suggests toxicity or an allergic reaction. Alternatively, your cat may have been stung inside the mouth by a plant or insect.

If the tongue is not swollen, a more traditional medical explanation will arise. Either way, you must take urgent action.

Swollen Tongue

If your cat’s tongue is swollen, it has likely been exposed to a toxin. This is particularly likely if the cat is also drooling.

Many plants are dangerous to cats and provoke swelling in the tongue or throat. This will understandably make breathing a challenge.

Your cat could also have been stung by an insect. If the cat hunted a bug, it may have attempted to consume it. In addition to bees and wasps, ants, spiders, and scorpions could have stung your cat.

Cat is Sticking Its Tongue Out and Drooling

Make an urgent veterinary appointment, but manage the swelling in the short term. If you can, place ice cubes in a plastic bag. Place these on the cat’s tongue. This will reduce swelling and make breathing easier.

If your cat can swallow, provide an antihistamine. This will manage the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Benadryl is cat-safe in appropriate doses.

The average cat weighs 10 lbs. Half a 25mg tablet is safe for a cat of this weight. If your cat is lighter or heavier, adjust the dosage accordingly.

Non-Swollen Tongue

Shortness in breath without a swollen tongue will have a medical explanation. Potential causes include:

  • Asthma
  • Stress
  • Heart disease
  • Lung issues
  • Heartworm
  • Toxicity and allergic reactions

According to Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, asthma can be hard to diagnose. Just because your cat has not been diagnosed before, it cannot be asthmatic. Emotional stress will magnify the symptoms of asthma.

Lung or heart problems can escalate quickly in the event of toxicity. Senior cats should have a nose-to-tail health check at least once a year.

The body of a cat is an unhospitable environment for heartworm. If a cat is infected, it will experience heartworm associated respiratory disease, or HARD. There is no cure for heartworm in cats.

9/ Panting

An overheating cat or feline with heatstroke will pant to cool off. Cats sweat through uncovered skin on the paw pads and nose. This is not always enough to moderate body temperature.

A cat is at risk of hyperthermia if body temperature exceeds 102 degrees Fahrenheit. A cat will begin panting before reaching this temperature. Cool your cat off as soon as it starts panting to keep it safe.

Most of the reasons why a cat has a protruding tongue are harmless, such as exploring new scents. If something doesn’t seem quite right, check through the explanations and seek veterinary assistance.