If you have ever been licked by a cat, you are truly honored. This is arguably the ultimate sign of affection that a cat can offer a human. The sensation will feel strange, though. Cats have rough tongues, with a texture akin to sandpaper. Thankfully, this is a sign of a healthy feline.
Cat tongues are coated with backward-facing barbs known as papillae. These barbs are tough as they are made from keratin. The papillae on a cat’s tongue help tear the flesh from the bones of prey. In addition, they are critical for trapping and removing excess fur when grooming. Papillae are also taste buds.
Do not be alarmed by the roughness of a cat’s tongue. The papillae on a cat’s tongue are not sharp enough to cut human flesh. The worst that will happen is small quantities of body hair becoming trapped in the barbs.
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Why Do Cats Tongues Feel Like Sandpaper?
The rough, tough sensation of a cat’s tongue is due to the presence of papillae. These are small, hollow barbs that cover the tongue. Papillae are essential to a cat’s health and lifestyle, and are entirely natural.
If a cat’s tongue was studied under a microscope, it would look hairy. This is the papillae that you’re seeing. The papillae found on a cat’s tongue are critical for five core purposes. Without them, a cat will struggle with certain everyday activities that it takes for granted.
Papillae make up for a cat’s lack of opposable thumbs. Felines explore the world with their mouths, using their tongues for a number of purposes. All of these duties are made much easier with the use of papillae.
Arguably the most important role of the papillae on a cat’s tongue is in grooming. Without these barbs, a cat would struggle to maintain clean and sleek fur.
The first advantage of papillae is their shape. As these barbs face backward, they work against the growth of feline fur. When your cat licks itself, it is essentially brushing its own fur. As explained by PNAS, the efficiency of cat papillae compares favorably to a comb.
Papillae also feel good on a cat’s skin. The sensation of grooming is comparable to self-petting. In addition, the papillae on a cat’s tongue are hollow. This means the papillae can hold saliva, distributing it evenly around feline fur.
This is important to cleanliness. The cat can use its own saliva to wash itself, negating the need for a bath. Feline saliva is also a natural antiseptic. If a cat licks open wounds, healing time will be enhanced.
Saliva is also used to distribute skin oils around a cat’s fur. This prevents the hair from growing greasy, clumpy, or matted. If a cat neglects grooming for any period of time, it will be clearly visible.
There is a note of caution to sound around the papillae and grooming. It is common for fur to become trapped on the tongue. The cat cannot spit this out, so it is invariably swallowed. This what leads to hairballs.
Most cats can pass a hairball without much concern. Longhaired breeds may experience larger hairballs, though. Be mindful that these are not causing an intestinal blockage. If necessary, aid your cat with grooming. Do not rely on papillae alone.
The transfer of saliva from a cat’s mouth to its fur through papillae is not just related to cleanliness. It is also a way for a cat to keep cool. When saliva reaches a cat’s skin and evaporates, it automatically reduces a cat’s temperature.
This can be critical during the hottest months of the year. If it a cat is overheating, it will typically groom more. The difference between a cat’s skin and fur can be as high as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. As cats love to sunbathe, grooming becomes important.
Do not attempt to replicate this experience with water. Cat saliva evaporates slowly and steadily. It is also evenly distributed thanks to the presence of the papillae. Unless your cat is in distress, leave it to cool itself down through grooming.
Papillae on a cat’s tongue ensure that no morsels of food are wasted. When the cat scoops wet food into the mouth, it clings to the tongue papillae.
Cats are incapable of chewing from side to side. Instead, they can only move their teeth in a vertical motion. Many cats eschew chewing altogether, opting to swallow bite-sized morels whole. Papillae hold this food in place until the cat is ready to chew, minimizing choking risk.
Papillae also provide a cat with its sense of taste. Felines have comparatively few taste buds – just 473, compared to a human’s 9,000. This is why cats are indifferent to distinctive tastes, such as sweetness. These handful of taste buds are found on tongue papillae.
Papillae also detect the texture and temperature of food. Many cats only eat moist, room temperature food. This replicates the sensation of devouring wild prey, appealing to feline instinct. If the papillae detect coolness or unappealing texture, the cat will likely walk away.
Cats do not scoop water using their tongue and flick it into their mouths. This is a messy and wasteful approach to drinking, which is unappealing to such meticulous animals. As explained by Science, cats use their papillae to defy the laws of physics while drinking.
Cats fold the upper side of their tongue downward. The tongue then darts through water, forcing it to rise to the surface of a bowl. Fluid sticks to the papillae, and the cat closes its mouth before gravity takes hold.
This whole process unfolds in the blink of an eye. It is believed that cats perform this action up to four times in a single second. This is part of the reason that cats spend such little time at their water bowl. Feline hydration is the epitome of unfussy efficiency.
A cat’s tongue papillae also play a vital role during hunting. These barbs are an organic adhesive, keeping prey in a cat’s mouth until a killing blow is delivered.
When a cat stalks prey, it often captures it using teeth. Sometimes, the cat will bite clean through the spine or a mice or bird. This kills the prey instantly but requires perfect timing. More often, the cat will need to play with, and exhaust, its victim.
Typically, the cat will hold prey firm in its strong jaws. A mouse of bird will fight to escape at this point. The backward-facing papillae on a cat’s tongue keep it into place. The cat can then apply increasing pressure with the teeth, eventually killing the prey.
In addition, papillae will scoop up any remains of the prey. Loose feathers, for example, could be an irritant. The papillae hold feathers in place on the tongue. The cat can then swallow or remove them as it sees fit.
If your cat is prone to eating its prey, the papillae are equally important. Cat teeth are strong enough to crunch through bone. This creates a safety risk, though. The cat could choke on small bones or cut its mouth on sharp edges.
The papillae on a cat’s tongue act like tiny saws, stripping flesh from bone. This way, the cat can get straight to the meat of prey. It will systematically tear a small animal apart, swallowing only what is safe.
Cat Tongue Papillae Types
Cats have four forms of papillae on their tongue. Each of these papillae serve a different purpose.
Filiform papillae are the most abundant papillae on a cat’s tongue. These papillae point backward, aiding with grooming and shredding the flesh of prey from bone. The sandpaper-like sensation of a cat’s lick stems from the filiform papillae.
Fungiform papillae are shaped like mushrooms and found on the side of a cat’s tongue. As per the Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal, fungiform papillae are pivotal to a cat’s sense of taste.
Circumvallate papillae (aka vallate papillae) are found at the back of the tongue. These papillae pick out any taste discrepancies in a cat’s food before swallowing. If a cat spits out food, it is likely that the circumvallate papillae found it unappealing.
Foliate papillae are just in front of the circumvallate papillae. These barbs are the largest on a cat’s tongue, covering the biggest mass. If you spot bumps on a cat’s tongue, you are likely seeing the foliate papillae. These papillae check a food’s temperature and texture.
Why Don’t Dogs Have Rough Tongues?
While dogs are descended from wolves, they retain comparatively few wild attributes. A pet dog may enjoy chasing smaller animals, but they’ll rarely actively hunt. As a result, dogs do not need to strip flesh from prey.
Nature claims that dogs were domesticated between 20-40,000 years ago. This means that evolution has had plenty of time to unfold. While wolves retain rough tongues similar to that of a cat, a domesticated dog simply doesn’t need these tough papillae.
Cats, meanwhile, have retained the hunting instincts of their ancestors. The predatory drive of a domesticated cat remains high. Without papillae on the tongue, a cat will run into trouble after hunting. Remnants of food and prey will remain on the tongue.
In addition, we must consider the solitary nature of cats. Felines prefer to keep their own counsel, living alone or in small groups. This means that cat colonies rarely engage in communal grooming.
A cat’s rough tongue ensures that it can rely upon itself to stay clean. This also masks a cat’s scent, making it a more efficient hunter. Dogs have remained social, and often groom each other. This, again, makes papillae on the tongue inessential for canines.
Why Is My Cat’s Tongue Smooth?
The vast majority of cats have rough, scratchy tongues. Some cats will have a tongue that feels as smooth as silk. This is not due to old age. The papillae on a cat’s tongue will not fade over time.
Instead, this will be a genetic mutation. It could occur in any cat, of any breed, from birth. If your cat is born with a smooth tongue, it will retain it. Likewise, a typical sandpaper tongue will remain with a cat throughout its life.
A cat with a smooth tongue will not experience issues with taste. The cat will also be able to drink water without trouble. Where the cat will need support is during grooming. As discussed, backward-facing papillae are critical for this task.
When a cat with a smooth tongue licks itself, saliva coats the surface of its fur. Papillae drive this saliva into the skin. A smooth tongue will not perform this action. This means that fur may become matted or clumped. In addition, your cat’s skin may grow oily.
Combat this by bringing grooming into your cat’s daily routine. Offer regular brushing to evenly distribute fur oils. You should also take care to wash your cat’s skin regularly. There is no need to use the bathtub for this. Unscented wet wipes will be more than adequate.
Never be alarmed by the rough, hairy sensation of a cat’s tongue. This is perfectly natural, and important to a cat’s day-to-day life. Instead, cherish the sensation of being licked by your cat. Felines do not offer this affectionate gesture lightly.