When it comes to our cats, we love nothing more than to give them lots of cuddles and kisses. But when our cats return the favor, it can be quite a surprise to feel a rough, sandpaper-like tongue instead of the soft tongue we are used to in other humans and dogs. And it only seems to be certain cats who have rougher tongues, but why?
Some cats have rougher tongues than others because the tongues have backward-facing spines, or papillae, which help cats drink, eat and groom themselves. However, some cats have softer tongues, usually as a result of a harmless genetic mutation that doesn’t interfere with their health.
Although you may think that having a rough tongue means something is wrong, read on to find out why this is normal and how your cat’s tongue helps them eat, drink, and groom themselves.
Table of Contents
Why Do Cats Have Rough Tongues?
Cats have rough tongues due to small spines, which face backward, that run along the tongue. These are called papillae, and they’re placed on the tongue to help cats drink water, groom themselves, and eat food.
Watch this YouTube video about the papillae:
Papillae are sharp, backward-facing spines that look like tiny cat claws on the cat’s tongue. Papillae contain keratin, the same protein in human fingernails, skin, hair, and cat claws.
Cats mostly use them for grooming, but they can also help with drinking and eating.
How Papillae Works
Papillae work very similarly to how a comb works, except that the papillae are more flexible than a comb. For example, when the cat’s tongue comes across a knot, it pulls on the papillae that can rotate, which helps to stab the knot further, allowing the cat to groom itself appropriately.
The flexibility of the spines will enable the cat to detangle its fur better.
How Do Rough Tongues Help Cats?
Rough tongues help cats by letting them groom themselves and keep their fur clean, as the papillae act as a very flexible comb that can detangle knots and tufts of fur from their body. They also help them drink water and eat.
Cleanliness is vital to survival in the wild because if their prey sniffed an unwashed cat, they would run away immediately, and the cat would miss them. Let’s take a further look at how tongues help cats.
Rough Tongues Help Cats Eat
Rough tongues help cats eat by making it easier for them to swallow their food. Additionally, they can use their tongues to scrape smaller pieces of food into their mouths.
Cats have sharp teeth at the front of their mouth, which are for killing prey, and inside their mouth, they have tiny incisors used for taking feathers or skin off their targets. However, when eating dry food or kibble, cats don’t sit and chew their food.
Instead, they shear off portions of food with their molars and then swallow them. They also use the incisors inside of their mouths to nibble on bits of food, which is why cats move their heads side to side whilst eating.
Rough Tongues Help Cats Drink
Rough tongues help cats drink by allowing them to dip just the tip of their tongues into the water. Doing so allows the papillae to grab water and hold it whilst the cat then brings its tongue back to its mouth.
Before gravity pulls the water back down to the bowl, cats close their mouth and swallow the water.
It is thought that a domestic house cat will repeat this process every four seconds.
Rough Tongues Help Cats Groom Themselves
Cats are spotless animals, and they can often spend up to half their waking time grooming themselves.
Rough tongues help cats groom with the use of their papillae that can help redistribute natural oils produced by their skin, providing the fur with a small layer of waterproofing. Additionally, being as flexible as they are, the papillae allow cats to detangle their fur and remove dirt or dead skin.
The cats use the papillae to distribute saliva to their bodies and their paws, which can help keep them cool in the summer heat.
Some Cats Have Soft Tongues
Although cats’ tongues are usually rough, having a soft-tongued cat is nothing to worry about, as it’s likely the result of a genetic mutation within your cats’ history. While this sounds quite frightening, a soft tongue in a cat is nothing to worry about and won’t complicate things long-term.
Soft-tongues can affect any breed of cat, but let’s look at how this impacts a cat’s daily life. While it might be a bit more difficult for a cat to clean themselves, they can still eat and drink as any other cat does.
Do Soft Tongues Cause Issues for My Cat?
While you may think that having a soft tongue can stop your cat from drinking and eating, it doesn’t.
Soft tongues don’t cause any long-term health issues for your cat, and cats who have them can eat and drink just fine. They’re perfectly able to live long and healthy lives.
Grooming Concerns With a Soft Tongue
While cats with smooth tongues can groom themselves, they’ll likely need some help keeping their fur clean. Due to the lack of papillae on its tongue, your cat can’t properly detangle any clumps of fur on its body.
To help with this, buy a cat brush from your local pet shop or Amazon.com.
Here are a few products available on Amazon.com that I recommend:
- Dooki-Be Pet Grooming Glove: This grooming glove is fantastic. Not only does it allow you to give your pet a groom to get rid of unwanted fur and knots, but it also feels like you’re giving your cat a good stroke which feels fantastic for both of you.
- itPlus Cat Grooming Brush: This brush is excellent for giving your cat a healthy coat, as well as improving circulation throughout their body. It also has a silicone, slip-resistant handle, which makes brushing more comfortable for your hand.
- WASSA Hertzko Slicker Brush: This brush is currently a best-seller on Amazon.com, and it’s easy to see why. The superfine bristles can penetrate deeply into your cats’ coats without hurting their skin. The bristles retreat into the brush with a simple push of a button, making it easy to clean.
You should brush your cat at least once a week. However, soft-tongued cats or Persian cats should have a grooming session a few times a week to ensure that all their bodies are healthy and free of dead fur.
Eating and Drinking Concerns
Cats with smooth tongues can taste, eat, and drink just as much as any other cat.
Their soft tongues shouldn’t cause them any issues in regards to eating or drinking. However, it’s essential to keep an eye on your cat’s eating and drinking habits, as they can be signs of other issues your cat is experiencing, whether they have a soft tongue or not.
Signs to look for include:
- Loss of appetite
- Bad breath
- Excessive saliva/dribbling.
- Pawing at the mouth.
- Resisting when you try to look at the mouth.
- Enlarged lymph nodes in the mouth.
These were taken from the MSD Veterinary Manual Website, which also contains useful information about other symptoms to look out for, and when to take your cat to a vet.
You must take your cat to a vet as soon as you notice any of these symptoms, as they could be the start of a severe illness.
Realizing your cat has a rougher tongue than others can be worrying, but it’s entirely normal. The roughness caused by papillae helps your cat to groom themselves and aids with eating and drinking.
If your cat has a smooth tongue, it’s likely the result of a genetic mutation in their bloodline and won’t affect them health-wise. It’s essential to brush your pet a few times a week to help keep their fur healthy and clean, as the lack of papillae on their tongue makes it harder for them to de-tangle their fur.
- Cats Protection: Why do cats have rough tongues?
- Community Concern for Cats: Nutrition & Food
- National Geographic: How cat tongues work – and can inspire biotechnology
- MIT News: The surprising physics of cats’ drinking
- MSD Manual Veterinary Manual: Disorders of the Mouth in Cats
- The Washington Post: Ever wondered why cats spend a lot of time grooming themselves?
- Senior Cat Wellness: Why do cats have such rough tongues?
- Why Evolution is True: Why are cat tongues spiny?
- PBS News Hour: Ever wondered why your cat’s tongue feels like sandpaper?
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.