Of the many thoughts that cross your mind the first time a cat licks you, there’s only one that you can’t seem to shake: Why are cats’ tongues rough? A cat’s tongue may not be as gross and slobbery as a dog’s kisses, but the sandpaper-like texture is enough to make you wince. As it turns out, there are a few very good reasons behind this unusually rough tongue texture!
Cats’ tongues are rough because they have barb-shaped protrusions called papillae. These barbs help cats untangle knots in their fur and remove the muscles and tendons from the bone when eating prey. The rough texture helps cats maintain a pristine coat and eat every sliver from their latest catch.
Most cat lovers will tell you that a kiss from your beloved kitty is one of the most heartwarming and physically uncomfortable feelings of cat ownership. To learn about why cats’ tongues are rough and what purpose these razor-sharp barbs serve, read on!
What Makes a Cat’s Tongue Rough
A cat’s tongue isn’t as rough as the 250+ barb-like protrusions covering the tongue’s outer surface (“papillae“). These rear-facing keratin papillae — the same rigid material found in your fingernails — are U-shaped at the top to better hook into the fur when grooming or detach the meat from the bone while eating.
Although these barbs generally feel like sandpaper or the rougher-end of a strip of Velcro, they’re rougher than they are sharp. Your kitty’s tongue is rugged enough to get stuck in a looped (or porous) blanket or on her collar. But it’s nowhere near sharp enough to break open the top layer of skin when your cat kisses you.
Why a Rough Tongue Comes in Handy
Nearly every physical characteristic of modern-day cats developed to enhance species survival. For example, a cat’s retractable claws help climb trees, build traction while running, and defend from predators. And a cat’s flexible spine ensures cats always land on their feet (righting reflex), can reach top speeds of 30mph, and squeeze through narrow spaces.
A cat’s rough tongue puts a kitty’s survival and self-care to the test!
If there’s one thing cats spend a lot of time doing, it’s grooming. The average cat will dedicate 30-50% of her day to grooming herself, keeping her coat pristine, and licking out the snarls and knots in her fur. A cat’s tongue is her most reliable grooming tool — you’re a close second!
Here’s how it works:
When your cat licks her fur, the bristles on her tongue mimic a hairbrush. The papillae follow the hairs’ direction and the backward-facing barbs help remove loose hair, dirt, and dandruff. Scientists only recently discovered that these papillae would gently rotate during a grooming session once they hit a knot — helping to untangle the snarl rather than fighting the resistance.
These bristle-laden grooming sessions also help to:
- Remove scents and odors from your cat’s fur (making your cat unrecognizable to predators like coyotes and feral cats in the area)
- Release the identifiable scent and oils from her skin and spread them across her coat from head to toe (letting other cats know she’s there)
Though your cat is skilled at self-grooming, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to groom your cat as well. The reverse-facing barbs catch onto loose hairs and can contribute to the formation of hairballs. And since certain breeds have long hair — like the Maine Coon or Persian — getting those barbs through her coat’s thickness isn’t always guaranteed.
Hunting & Prey
Cats may be prey to coyotes and other large mammals, but they also happen to be predators to smaller mammals (like chipmunks and rabbits) and birds. When a cat snags a catch outdoors, her tongue plays a vital role in tearing apart and eating the animal.
Here’s how these rough barbs come in handy while hunting.
The first role a cat’s tongue plays while hunting is holding down the prey shortly after the catch. A cat will then use her rough tongue to repeatedly lick both the hair and skin from the chipmunk or small bird. Once a cat begins eating the meat, her bristled tongue will help to detach the muscle and tendons from the bones and get as much meat in her stomach as possible!
Want to take a deeper dive into the unusual world of rough cat tongues? The video below will walk you even further in-depth into this unique anomaly.
Are Cats Tongues Clean?
Many folks insist that both cats and dogs have cleaner tongues than humans. And while these critters might not necessarily have dirtier tongues and mouths than we do, they aren’t clean enough to make kisses on the mouth safe or healthy. A cat’s tongue reportedly has nearly 200 different types of bacteria (humans and dogs have closer to 400-500).
Now you might be wondering: Just how dirty is a cat’s tongue?
Here’s what you need to know about that.
Gross Grooming Sessions
First and foremost, you have to think about what cats do with their tongues aside from regular coat grooming. Not only do cats eat bugs and small animals (some of which may carry diseases and viruses), but they also lick themselves after relieving themselves in the litter box. Your cat’s tongue may still hold urine or feces remnants after a particularly intense grooming session after using the litter box!
The Presence of Bacteria
Another sanitary concern with a cat’s tongue is the possible presence of bacteria like Pasteurella multocida. Although this bacteria usually spread through cat-to-human bite wounds, it might find itself into your system if your beloved kitty licks an open wound of yours. This bacteria can cause mild swelling and tenderness, lymph node swelling, or even bone and joint weakness. These severe side effects are rare but possible.
Should You Let Your Cat Lick You on the Lips?
Cats use their tongues to clean out fresh wounds of their own for sanitary purposes, making them clean when used on themselves. But as a human, a cat’s tongue is dirty enough and has enough bacteria to make you second guess those mouth or lip kisses. Gentle kisses on your cat’s head or your cat giving you a lick on your forehead or arm doesn’t pose the same issues.
Which Cat Has the Roughest Tongue?
All cats have rough tongues, but domestic cats don’t hold the title of “roughest tongues.” That honor would have to go to your kitty’s distant cousins in the big cat world, who also have the same sharp tongue barbs!
Other big cat species with rough tongues include:
- Bengal tigers
The papillae of these big cat species aren’t necessarily rougher or sharper than your cat’s. The significant differences between a tiger’s tongue and your 10-pound kitty’s are the size of the tongue, number of papillae, and length of those abrasive barbs.
While you may not appreciate the texture of your kitty’s tongue on your arm, you should take those unusual kisses in stride! After all, it’s not common for cats to lick their owners as intensely or excitedly as dogs do.
Many cat experts agree that these kisses are your cat’s way of claiming you as her favorite person, calming herself down when she’s stressed, or returning the favor and petting you. Yet, you don’t have to let your cat lick you if you dislike the rough sensation. Toss her a toy or redirect her attention toward a petting session instead!
- PNAS: Cats use hollow papillae to wick saliva into fur
- Smithsonian Magazine: Your Cat’s Tongue Is a Rough, Pink Engineering Marvel
- Cornell Feline Health Center: Cats that Lick Too Much
- National Geographic: How Dog and Cat ‘Kisses’ Can Turn Deadly
- Can Fam Physician: Pasteurella Multocida Bacteremia In Humans A Clinical Report
- Anat Rec: Quantitative study of fungiform papillae and taste buds on the cat’s tongue
- Wikipedia: Righting reflex