Cat tongues are cool. They’re also weird and rough, scratchy, dry and utterly bizarre to look at up close — but mostly cool. This is a point not lost on the multitude of scientists who have devoted full studies and papers to the differences in cat tongues.
Recently, scientists at Georgia Tech went so far as to print a cat tongue on a 3-D printer at 400 percent scale. Doctoral candidate Alexis Noel and her research team discovered the cat’s tongue is a far better comb and detangler than the hairbrush we humans use. “When the cat’s tongue hits a snag, it pulls on the hooks [the rough part of a cat’s tongue], which rotate to penetrate the snag even further. Like a heat-seeking missile for snags, the hook’s mobility allows the cat to better tease tangles apart,” Noel told Science Daily. She believes the findings could not only revolutionize human hairbrushes, but also have implications in the human medical field.
See a cat’s tongue up close
“A typical hairbrush has spines that stick straight out. When hair collects on the brush it forms a thick mat that must be removed by hand,” Noel explained. “In comparison, the cat’s flexible spines make it easier to clean. When not in use, the spines on a cat tongue lie nearly flat against its surface, like overlapping shingles. This configuration provides openings in a single direction, enabling the mat of hair around the bristles to be removed with a single finger [or tongue] swipe.”
More: 9 of Your Most Pressing Cat Health Questions Answered
So, in celebration of this amazing feline feature, we wanted to share a few other fun and little-known facts about your cat’s tongue. Some of them might even help you save your cat’s life one day!
1. The “rough stuff” on your cat’s tongue are called papillae
The rough sensation you get when your cat licks you is due to the papillae on its tongue. Even though our human tongues have papillae (also known as “taste buds”), they feel remarkably different. Papillae on a cat’s tongue are longer and have far more keratin — giving them the scratchy, dry feeling. The exact reason cat’s papillae look and feel so different is unknown, but they do play a large role in helping cats stay clean and healthy.
2. Cats can’t taste sweets, but may taste things we don’t
After years of anecdotal evidence that cats don’t perceive sugar the way most mammals do, biochemist Joe Brand from Monell Chemical Senses Center and his colleague Xia Li confirmed it. “They don’t taste sweet the way we do,” Brand told Scientific American for its article “Strange but True: Cats Cannot Taste Sweets.”
However, the same study found that they may be tasting something else. “Cats can taste things we cannot, such as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the compound that supplies the energy in every living cell.”
3. Cat tongues play a critical role in your cat’s health
“Cats’ tongues may be the busiest part of their anatomy.” Notes Animal Planet’s article “Crazy Cat Anatomy Facts.” “They lick their coats not only to keep clean, but to regulate their body temperatures, fluffing up the fur in winter and wetting it down with saliva to stay cool in summer.”
The tongue also collects skin flakes, fur, fleas and dirt. This debris is swallowed and digested by stomach acid. If the stomach acid cannot fully digest it, typical in longhaired or older cats, hairballs may form. This can cause problems, especially if the hairballs don’t fully digest. Longhaired cats get a grooming boost from regular brushing, which removes loose hair so they don’t have to.
More: How Much Does It Actually Cost to Own a Cat?
4. A “lazy” grooming or unkempt appearance can be a sign that something is wrong
If your cat’s tongue just isn’t cutting it grooming-wise, it’s a good time to schedule a vet visit. Reasons for poor grooming can run the gamut, from obesity to pain, disease, malnutrition and other issues. “Most [cats] tend to be quite fastidious about their appearance, and the ability to clean themselves is not only important to the way [they] look but also the way they feel,” notes vet Christie Long in her PetCoach article “5 Good Reasons to Put Your Cat on A Diet.” “Cats who are overweight frequently have matted fur and flaky skin on the lower parts of their bodies, and these can increase their discomfort.” (Learn more about cat obesity and grooming.)
5. An overgroomer can be a sign of stress or other issues
If your cat begins to develop bald spots, a trip to the vet can help you determine whether kitty’s actually pulling out hair with his tongue or losing it due to a problem with something else. Stress and emotional issues sometimes cause kitty tongues to go into hyper-grooming drive, but other issues like thyroid conditions, allergies and even mites present in a similar way. (Read more about the causes of overgrooming in cats.)
6. Tongue and gum color can indicate whether your cat’s getting enough oxygen
Did you know that your cat’s tongue and gums change color if kitty’s not getting enough oxygen? “A pale pink, white or blue… [could] mean your pet is not getting a proper amount of oxygen throughout the body,” notes vet Dana Koch in her PetCoach article “Signs of Cancer in Dogs and Cats.” “If your pet is having shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing or tiredness after exercise, then you should seek veterinary evaluation as soon as possible.” (Be prepared: See other signs of cancer in cats and learn about kitty first aid and CPR.)
7. Tongues need to be checked by your vet
Changes in color aren’t the only thing your vet will look for during your cat’s regular checkup. The tongue and jaw are more prone to getting certain types of cancer, and issues like mouth ulcers can be a sign of kidney disease. So don’t forget to book kitty that annual or biannual exam to keep your cat as happy and healthy as long as possible.
8. Cat tongues are magical when drinking water
Cats literally go against the force of gravity to drink — with the tip of their tongue. The tip of the tongue moves downward, lightly touches the liquid and then darts back into the mouth, creating a trail of liquid behind it.
Watching cats lap water is pure magic.
…but some don’t drink enough of it
“The general consensus nowadays is that our domesticated felines should be encouraged to drink plenty of water, since it is necessary in order to keep them adequately hydrated,” says veterinarian Tomasz Wnuk. But how do we get our sometimes difficult cats to drink more? Check out Wnuk’s other tips for avoiding cat dehydration.
Their tongues may be more highly evolved, dumbfounding us in their hairbrush technology and antigravity lapping, but at least we can eat — and enjoy — ice cream.