why do cats have rough tongues?
Questions About Cats

Why Do Cats Have Such Rough Tongues?

Being licked by a cat is an honor. A cat flicking their tongue over your hand means that it accepts you as part of its family. However, the sensation can feel strange due to the coarse texture of a cat’s tongue.

Feline tongues feel like sandpaper because they’re covered with tiny spikes. These barbs (filiform papillae) serve two purposes. They act as a comb while grooming, and they sear meat from the bones of prey.

Cat tongue spikes feel a little unusual, but are crucial to felines. Your cat’s tongue makes up for its lack of opposable thumbs and serves many uses.

Why Do Cats Have Rough Tongues?

Your cat’s tongue is home to countless tiny, hollow barbs called papillae. A study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains more behind their biology.

These spikes, which face backward on your pet’s tongue, help cats to eat, drink and groom. Without them, your cat would struggle to stay clean, taste food or remain hydrated.

How Do Cat Tongues Help Them Groom?

Cats are meticulously clean – we know this. Whenever they lick their fur, the spikes on their tongue trap dirt and loose hairs. This keeps your cat clean. Also, cat saliva is a natural antiseptic. This heals any minor cuts and abrasions on a cat’s skin.

In addition to staying clean, grooming could save a cat’s life. It’s no secret that felines are territorial. This means that they need to remain vigilant about potential threats at all times.

What one cat has, another will likely covet. Felines are not shy about fighting for what they want, so conflict is highly probable.

When your cat grooms themselves, they are essentially masking their scent. Everywhere they go, they’ll pick up traces of dirt, parasites and environmental smells.

Other, opportunistic animals will smell this – and thus lie in wait to ambush your cat. By removing these telltale smells, your cat becomes invisible from a distance.

Finally, the spikes on your cat’s tongue act like a fine-toothed comb. As your pet grooms themselves, fur flattens. This is essential to a feline, as their fur rises when they sense danger.

If a cat’s cost is tangled and messy, they may not notice this early warning sign. If you have a longhaired cat, offer them additional grooming. Their papillae will not be long enough to penetrate thick layers of fur.

cat tongue spikes

How Do Cat Tongues Help Them Eat?

When it comes to food, your cat’s tongue is like a Swiss army knife. Cats have four types of papillae on their tongue. The filiform papillae that we feel when a cat licks us have no impact on taste. However, there are three more that are important:

  1. Fungiform As you may have guessed, these barbs are shaped like mushrooms. They are found on the side of your cat’s tongue.
  2. Circumvallate Papillae (aka Vallate Papillae). These papillae are dome-shaped, and found at the back of the tongue.
  3. Foliate These are the largest papillae on your cat’s tongue. They are found on either side of the organ, in front of the circumvallate papillae.

All of these papillae work in tandem to help your cat enjoy their food. When your cat investigates something new, their tongue will tell them if it’s worth their time. This is why a cat will often lick food before eating it. Feline tongues provide three critical evaluations:

Taste Check

Cats have fewer taste buds than humans. While we have around 9,000, felines have just 473. This is why they are indifferent to sweet flavors.

Texture Check

Cats naturally gravitate toward moist, dense foods. This is hardly surprising, given they hunt and eat small animals. However, every cat will have their preferences. If a cat does not enjoy the taste or texture of their food, they’ll walk away.

Temperature Check

Have you served your cat’s dinner straight from the fridge, and they’ve expressed no interest? This is because they will have run a temperature check with their tongue first. Cats like their food at around 86O. Anything cooler than this will deter them from eating.

Cutting Meat from Bone

Cats never lose their hunting instincts. Your pet may well stalk – and eat – wild mice and birds. The barbs found on your cut’s tongue will tear edible meat from a crunchy bone. Think of your cat’s filiform papillae as organic cutlery.

Cats may appear to be fussy eaters for such food-focused animals, but it all makes sense. Their tongues are so sensitive that any deviation from their preference can

How Do Cat Tongues Help Them Drink?

As the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains, felines do not simply lap and spooning water into their mouths.

Instead, a cat will poke its tongue into the water, and curl it backward. Picture a J shape. When it does so, water will stick to the barbs found on a cat’s tongue. Your cat will then bring its tongue back into its mouth.

Naturally, however, water will not stick to these barbs like Teflon. The rules of gravity still apply to cats. They retract their tongue so quickly that their mouth snaps closed before water can fall. The average domestic cat can lap around four times in a single second.

Do Cats Use Their Tongues for Anything Else?

The other primary use of a cat’s tongue is stimulating the need to eliminate. Mothers will often do this with their kittens. However, you may find that one adult cat helps out another by doing this.

Why are Some Cat Tongues Rougher Than Others?

If your cat has a smooth tongue, this is not necessarily something to worry about. Some cats are born this way as a genetic quirk. The barbs on a cat’s tongue do not wear out from overuse.

If your cat has a smooth tongue, they will still be able to taste food as normal. Where you may need to be careful, however, is with grooming. Without tongue barbs, your cat’s fur may clump and become tangled. You’ll need to groom your cat with a fine-toothed comb at least once daily.

Could I Cut My Hand on My Cat’s Tongue?

We have established that cats have a sharp tongue.  However, the barbs will not cut your hand when your cat offers you a loving lick. The worst that will happen is any loose hair on your body will be gently removed.

My Cat’s Tongue is a Weird Color

A cat’s tongue should always be bright pink. This is a sign that they are happy and healthy. A pink tongue means that blood and oxygen are circulating your pet’s body.

If your cat’s tongue is discolored in any way, it’s a symptom of a medical condition. Common problems that feature tongue discoloration include:

Black Spots

If you notice black spots on your cat’s tongue, don’t panic immediately. If they have been there since kittenhood, it’s typically nothing to worry about. If they appear out of the blue, however, get your cat seen by a vet. There is always the risk of cancer.

Heart Conditions

If your cat has a heart condition, they’ll struggle to keep oxygen flowing. Any other kind of breathing problem, such as asthma or bronchitis, should also be monitored. If your cat’s tongue starts to turn blue, race them to the vet ASAP.

Kidney Problems

Another condition linked to a cat’s tongue turning blue is kidney failure. In such an instance, your cat’s tongue and gums may also turn gray or purple. A discolored tongue is a sufficient reason to see a vet. If your cat is also losing weight and continually seems thirsty, their kidneys are at risk.

Ensure that a vet reviews your cat if you notice any strange coloration surrounding their tongue. As above, it may be nothing, or it could be severe. Only a professional will be able to tell.

why are some cats tongues rougher than others?

Can Cats Injure Their Tongue?

As a cat’s tongue is so important, they will notice any damage keenly. Two primary injuries and illnesses will impact upon a cat’s tongue:

  1. Biting Tongue. A cat biting their tongue is quite a common injury. This could happen while eating, or while sleeping. If your cat is busy dreaming about a hunt, they may chomp down in their sleep. The injury will heal itself, given enough time. All the same, it’s best to see a vet. Your cat may need an antibacterial treatment.
  2. Inflammation and Ulcers. If your cat is struck down by a viral infection, their tongue will often follow. Conditions such as feline calicivirus (FCV), herpes (FHV-1) and leukemia (FeLV) can all cause suffering.

If your cat hurts their tongue, you will know about it. They will likely be very vocal, and will also struggle with bad breath and a loss of appetite. Even if the wound will repair itself, it’s best to speak to a vet. Cat tongues are so sensitive and important that an injury should ever be ignored.

Can Cats Heal Wounds with Their Tongue?

Feline saliva contains antiseptic qualities. As a result, some cultures consider the lick of a cat to be medicinal.

It’s undeniably true that a cat can heal minor injuries through their tongue. After all, the term, “licking their wounds” exists for a reason.

However, don’t rush to your pet if you cut your hand with a kitchen knife. Cat mouths still contain all manner of bacteria. This could leave you worse off than before.

My Cat Keeps Sticking Their Tongue Out

If your cat is sticking their tongue out, they’re not being rude or impertinent. The behavior could have its roots in any of these circumstances:

Dental Pain

If your cat is experiencing oral pain, they’ll be reluctant – or unable – to close their mouths. Check your cat’s mouth and gums for any form of discoloration.

If your cat won’t let you near their mouth, this suggests a dental drama. Other common signs include a loss of appetite, reluctance to groom, bad breath, and excessive drooling.


When overhearing, your cat may poke out their tongue in an attempt to cool off. This is an early warning sign of heatstroke, and must be taken seriously.

Consumption of Toxins

If your cat has swallowed something toxic, they may stick their tongue out. This is an attempt at ridding themselves of the unwelcome taste. If you saw your cat swallow something toxic, race them to the vet.


If your cat is completely relaxed, their tongue may loll outside their mouths. This is especially common while your pet is sleeping.

Unique Scent

Finally, the most common explanation of all. When a cat picks up a unique scent that intrigues them, they open wide. This is because an additional scent organ is found in the roof of their mouth. Known as the Flehman response, cats poke out their tongue to fully acknowledge the scent.

Some of these explanations are considerably more worrying than others. If you suspect ill health, seek advice from a vet as soon as you can.

The first time that a cat licks you can feel very strange. Many pet owners are a little freaked out by the coarse texture of a cat’s tongue. Thankfully, there is no need to be. As we have now explained, a cat’s rough tongue is a positive thing. It’s keeping your cat alive.

As unique and versatile as your cat’s tongue may be, however, don’t rely upon it to do everything. Your cat will still need your help with grooming, and other activities. Also, be vigilant about observing your cat’s tongue health.