Why Are Cats Tongues Rough? Is This Normal Or Should You Worry?

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Why Are Cats Tongues Rough

If you’re used to having dogs and their drool-filled, smooth tongues, then the sandpaper-like texture of your pet cat’s tongue might surprise you and even freak you out. And so, you ask: Why are cats tongues rough? Should the tongue of a cat really feel tingly?

Well, first things first. It’s normal for cat tongues to feel rough. So, if you’re a bit worked up about your pet cat’s rough tongue, don’t be. It’s supposed to be that way. 

Now, if you wish to know the science behind it, read on. Feline Living, after all, takes pleasure in uncovering the whys, whats, and whatnots behind cats, their behavior, food, and their body and health included. This also includes the cat tongue.

As such, stay tuned as we dive deep into the nooks and crannies of cat tongues. You might just find this newfound knowledge interesting and even eye-opening. 

Why Are Cats Tongues Rough?

At one point, a lick from your cat may have given you a tingly sensation. And so you wonder if cat tongues rough texture is out of the ordinary. 

Unlike dogs, cats have rough tongues, which you might find unusual. But, this is normal. And, those rough tongues come with a couple of benefits.

Before we discuss how the rough texture of your cat’s tongue helps your cat go through every waking hour of their life, here is the lowdown on why your cat’s tongue is all barbed up.

Just like any tongue, your cat’s tongue is also a muscular organ. However, a close look at your pet cat’s tongue will reveal that it is covered with tiny curved spines called papillae, aka” filiform papillae.”

We have this as well, but it is in the form of small, cone-shaped bumps that cover the tongue’s upper surface. It consists of connective tissue cores and a keratin-covered epithelium – the same material nails, hair, and feathers are made up of. 

On the other hand, cats’ tongues papillae are shaped like a claw curved backward with its point facing the throat or the rear of the cat’s mouth. Unlike humans, cats’ papillae are heavily keratinized. This is why a cat’s tongue feels prickly.

Cat Tongue & Its Different Uses

The tongue is mainly used for eating and drinking for us humans (and probably other animals). In the cat realm, though, the tongue serves different purposes. One obvious use is for grooming.

Your pet cats’ day will not be complete without hours of grooming sessions. In fact, the owner of Just Cats Veterinary Services, Dr. Cynthia McManis, confirms that adult cats spend at least 50% of their waking hours grooming

Now, if you think this is just a waste of time, think again. Cats lick, bite, and nibble themselves for a couple of good reasons.

Apart from grooming, your cat’s tongue is actually busy doing other important stuff. If you want to know what they are, check out below:

It Effectively Strips Meat Off Bones

Eating and extracting all the meaty goodness from their prey is possible with the help of the tongue and its spines or papillae. 

True, a cat’s sharp teeth are indeed helpful when your cat is eating its prey. But, cats can only eat meat off the bone with the help of the spines in their rough tongue.

Apart from removing the flesh off the bones, the hardened spines also help keep their food in place and assist in picking up the food with ease.

It Lets Them Lap Water Effortlessly 

Ever seen a cat drink water? They’re not like dogs that make a lot of mess when drinking. They’re the opposite of that. Cats have this ability to stay dry after drinking, and how do they do this?

The secret behind cats’ slobber-free drinking is their rough tongues. When cats lap water, they don’t put their whole mouth in the water.

Instead, you’ll find your cat putting just the upper side of their tongue downward in the water and lifting it up very quickly. 

If you try doing this at home, you’ll most likely find yourself failing every attempt. Cats, however, do this with ease, all thanks to the scoop-shaped spines or papillae on their tongue.

Using surface tension, the papillae on the tongue wicks the water up from the surface, creating a water column which they swallow and drink.

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The Rough Tongue Acts Like A High-Tech Brush

Georgia Tech Bioengineer David Hu once said that a cat’s tongue works like a smart comb. And it does just that, thanks to its papillae or backward-facing spines. 

The papillae’s angle is not fixed. On the other hand, it moves like a flexible comb. Disentangling knots is difficult when you’re using a regular brush, but cats have it easy thanks to the papillae in their tongues that pivots and rotates into that hard-to-untie snarls to let it loose. 

Apart from detangling matted fur, grooming also effectively removes any dirt, parasites and eggs, and loose hairs – from the outer layer of their fur down to the thick undercoat. That’s why you see many cats having that purr-fect, tangle-free fur. 

However, if you have a long-haired cat (think Persian cat), your cat might need some extra help when it comes to grooming.

While the height of the papillae (which is the same for all cats) works with different fur types, long-haired cats’ may find it hard to groom their disheveled fur.

It Helps Cool Down Your Cat

We sweat to control body temperature. The problem is, when cats sweat, it’s only through the fur-free areas of their skin (like their paw pads). This is where cat tongue comes in handy. And the papillae play an important role here as well.

When grooming, the hollow, tiny spines or papillae on your cats’ tongues wick up saliva from your cat’s mouth. Once a cat licks their fur, saliva is also transferred to the fur.

The water in the saliva (just like sweat) evaporates. As it evaporates, your cat’s skin and the surface of its fur cool down, lowering the body temperature of your cat.

It Assists In Protecting Cats Against Predators

Just like big cats (think lions and tigers), domestic cats are highly-skilled predators. But because of their small size and build, your pet cat can also become prey. 

Don’t worry, though, because your cat has got everything under control. Born with an instinct of a solitary hunter, cats know exactly what to do to keep themselves protected from other animals.

Since odor plays an essential role in the animal kingdom, cats try to conceal their scent by grooming.  

The Rough Tongue Helps Keep Fur Shiny

Apart from keeping the hair of your cat dirt-free and untangled, the tongue also aids in distributing the protective oils produced by your pet’s skin.

These natural oils help keep your cat’s hair healthy and shiny. It also has a waterproof effect that keeps off dampness.

It Improves Blood Circulation

Brushing your hair improves the blood flow in your scalp. Grooming acts the same way. When your pets lick and groom themselves, the spine-covered tongue rubs against their skin. This back and forth motion encourages increased blood flow in their skin.

It Cleans Wounds

A dog and a cat’s mouth – their saliva in particular – contain various antibacterial compounds. So, if your pet cat is wounded or if your kitten is injured, your cat would most likely lick the wounded area. The papillae in the tongue would, in turn, help spread the saliva. If you see your cat do this, don’t worry. A cat’s saliva will help guard them against infection. 

Keep in mind, though, cats’ and dogs’ mouths are filled with bacteria, and its antibacterial effects only work when used within the same species.

Both dog and cat saliva can turn deadly when used the wrong way. Also, it doesn’t always cure wounds. So, if your pet sustains severe wounds, your best bet is to contact your vet.

Co-grooming Is a Cat’s Way Of Building Relationships

Aside from brushing their fur and twirling their tails, cats tend to groom one another (if they like each other). That is because grooming is their way of showing affection. So, if your pet cats lick you, this just means that they trust and adore you.

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Common Cat Tongue Problems

Now that you know that the spines in cat tongues are there for a reason, you might as well know what cat tongue problems actually require your vet’s assistance. 

Most of the disorders listed below have to do with the overall health of your cat’s mouth. However, since they’re connected, you’ll also find your cat’s tongue exhibiting unwanted symptoms.

  • Glossitis or inflammation of the tongue. This can be caused by an infection, insect stings, or other underlying health problems like diabetes or kidney disease.
  • Fungal Stomatitis. Although uncommon, you might as well watch out for this. Caused by a fungus known as Candida albicans, its symptoms include creamy-white plaques on the tongue as well as sores, bad breath, and redness.
  • Mouth burns. Caused by heat or electrical burns, a cat with mouth burns will drool a lot and show a lack of appetite. 

How The Cat’s Rough Tongue Inspired The Creation Of TIGR

David Hu (the same Georgia Tech bioengineer who mentioned that a cat’s rough tongue is like a smart comb) and Ph.D. student Alexis Noel were inspired to do more after studying how a cat’s tongue works. And the result is an impressive human tech called TIGR.

TIGR, which is short for Tongue-Inspired Grooming, is a brush covered with small, flexible, curved spines similar to a cat’s papillae.

Compared to the regular hairbrush, this new tech removed knots without the need to use a lot of force. Hairs or fur are also removed in one swift motion of the finger. 

Apart from detangling hair and removing loose hairs, Hu and Noel also see this bio-inspired invention being used for other purposes such as fiber sorting for textile and cream or lotion application for cats.

Good To Know: Other Animals That Have Spiny Tongues

Apart from cats, other living creatures in the animal kingdom are blessed with a spiny, papillae-filled tongue.

These include the big cousins of your cat – think lions, tigers, and leopards. Interestingly, the size and shape of their papillae are the same as those found in domestic cats.

Other creatures that have a mouth with a tongue filled with spiny papillae also include birds like penguins, geese, and other raptors.

Bottom Line

While dogs’ tongues are soft and smooth, cats’ tongues are the exact opposite. With its surface covered with hollow, curved spines called papillae, these flexible claw-like structures give cat tongues their rough feel. Despite their tingly sensation, this serves a greater purpose.  

Its tongue, along with its spines, although not apparent, actually helps a cat survive. Here’s a rundown of all its uses:

  • It does not only help a cat enjoy eating its food (or its prey) to the fullest, but it also helps keep your cat from becoming prey. 
  • The spines also help them groom themselves until they look purr-fect.
  • Shinier coats are also possible with its aid. 
  • It also assists in regulating their temperature. 
  • Grooming has a massaging effect that enhances blood flow.
  • The cat’s saliva is a natural antiseptic that helps disinfect wounds.
  • Lapping down on water is easy peasy with the help of these spines.
  • Co-grooming helps develop cat-cat and cat-human bonds.

Given all its uses, your cat’s tongue may look weird, but it’s perfect in so many ways. So, now that you know how important this is, always ensure to keep your cat’s health, its oral health included, in check. 

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Can a Cat Have a Smooth Tongue?

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. When a cat with a smooth tongue licks itself, saliva coats the surface of its fur.

Do All Cats Have a Rough Tongue?

A cat's tongue feels like sandpaper, and it's all because they are solitary souls. Cats have hard, backwards-facing spines on their tongues, called filiform papillae. These work like a comb for grooming their fur, and are also used to rasp meat from animal bones.

Why is my Cat's Tongue Dry?

Dry mouth, known in the medical world as xerostomia, refers to a deficiency of saliva in the mouth. Saliva is essential to a cat's body, as it lubricates the mouth for swallowing and consuming food. When a cat's mouth is dry, it means something is decreasing his saliva production.

What Does a Healthy Cat Tongue Look Like?

Your cat's tongue (and gums) can vary in color, depending on whether she is getting enough oxygen throughout her body. Gums should be a bright healthy pink color. If you notice a pale pink, white, or blue shade, talk to your veterinary dentist right away.

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