When a cat licks you, the sensation will feel very strange. The feel of a cat’s tongue is completely different from the human tongue. Cats have rough tongues, with a texture akin to sandpaper.
Cat tongues are coated with backward-facing barbs called papillae or spines. These barbs are tough and resilient as they are made from keratin, which is a structural protein. The papillae on a cat’s tongue are used to tear the flesh from the bones of prey. Also, these papillae are used for removing dead fur and dirt when grooming.
Do not be alarmed by the spiky, abrasiveness of a cat’s tongue, as the papillae on the tongue are not sharp enough to sever human flesh. The worst that will happen is that body hair becoming trapped in the barbs when a cat licks you.
Table of Contents:
- 1 Why Do Cats Tongues Feel Like Sandpaper?
- 2 Cat Tongue Papillae Types
- 3 Why Don’t Dogs Have Rough Tongues?
- 4 Why Is My Cat’s Tongue Smooth?
Why Do Cats Tongues Feel Like Sandpaper?
As stated, the rough 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 wellness and are entirely natural.
If a cat’s tongue was looked at under the microscope, it would look hairy due to the presence of papillae. Without these papillae, a cat would struggle to perform certain everyday activities.
Why Do Cats Have Velcro Tongues?
Papillae compensate for a cat’s lack of opposable thumbs. Felines explore the world with their mouths, using their tongues for various purposes. All of these activities are made much easier with the use of papillae.
Without these barbs, a cat would struggle to maintain clean and sleek fur. 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 is comparable to a comb.
Papillae also feel good on a cat’s skin. The sensation of grooming is similar to self-petting. The papillae on the tongue are hollow, meaning that they can hold saliva, distributing it evenly across the fur.
This is important for 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 its open wounds, the healing time will be reduced.
Saliva is also used to distribute oils on a cat’s fur. This prevents the hair from growing greasy, clumpy, or matted. If a cat neglects to groom 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 the fur to become trapped on the tongue. The cat cannot spit this out, so it is usually swallowed, leading to hairballs.
Most cats can pass a hairball without issue. Longhaired breeds may experience larger hairballs, and these can lead to an intestinal blockage. If this becomes a regular problem, you may wish to assist your cat with its grooming.
The transfer of saliva from a cat’s mouth to its fur via 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 usually groom more. The difference between a cat’s skin and fur can be as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. As cats love to sunbathe, grooming becomes increasingly important.
Don’t attempt to replicate this experience with water. Cat saliva evaporates slowly and steadily and is evenly distributed due to the papillae. Unless your cat is in distress, allow it to cool itself by grooming itself.
The 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 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 morsels of food whole. Papillae hold this food in place until the cat is ready to chew, minimizing the risk of choking.
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.
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 an unappealing texture, the cat will likely walk away.
Cats do not scoop water using their tongue and flick it into their mouths. 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 4 times per second. This is part of the reason why cats spend so little time at their water bowls.
These barbs on the tongue are like an organic adhesive, keeping the prey in a cat’s mouth until a killing bite can be delivered. Also, the papillae will scoop up any remains of the prey. Loose feathers, for example, could be a major irritant. The papillae hold feathers in place on the tongue, and the cat can then swallow or remove them.
If your cat likes to eat its prey, the papillae play an equally crucial role. Cats’ teeth are strong enough to crunch through bone, but this does create a health risk. The cat could choke on small bones or cut its mouth on the sharp edges.
The papillae are like tiny saws, stripping flesh from the bone. This way, the cat can get straight to the meat of its prey. It will systematically tear a small animal apart, swallowing only what is deemed safe.
Cat Tongue Papillae Types
Cats have four forms of papillae on their tongue. Each of these serves a different purpose:
Filiform papillae are the most abundant. These papillae point backward, aiding with grooming and the removal of flesh from the bones of prey. The sandpaper-like sensation of a cat’s lick is due to 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 (vallate papillae) are found at the back of the tongue. These papillae pick out any taste discrepancies in food before swallowing. If a cat spits out food, the circumvallate papillae found the taste unappealing.
Foliate papillae are just in front of the circumvallate papillae. These barbs are the largest on a cat’s tongue, covering the greatest mass. If you notice bumps on a cat’s tongue, you have seen foliate papillae. These papillae are used to check the 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 animals. Consequently, dogs do not need to strip flesh from the bone.
The domestication of dogs happened between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. This means that evolution has had time to unfold. While wolves retain rough tongues similar to cats, a domesticated dog doesn’t need 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 as remnants of food and prey will remain on the tongue.
Why Is My Cat’s Tongue Smooth?
The vast majority of cats have rough, scratchy tongues that feel like velcro. Some cats, however, will have a tongue that feels as smooth as silk. This is not due to old age, as the papillae on a cat’s tongue will rub away over time.
Rather, this is 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 cat’s sandpaper tongue will remain throughout its life.
A cat with a smooth tongue will not experience issues with taste, and it will also be able to drink water without trouble. Where the cat will need support is during grooming as 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 function. This means that fur may become matted, clumped, or oily. Offer regular brushing to remove dead fur and evenly distribute oils. Clean your cat’s fur and skin with unscented wet wipes.
There’s no need to be concerned by the rough, hairy sensation of a cat’s tongue. These are just papillae, and been licked by a cart won’t cause any damage to human skin. A cat’s abrasive tongue performs various daily functions, such as removing dead fur and dirt and tearing the flesh from the bones of prey.