Why are Cats Tongues Rough: Understanding a Most Important Part of Your Friend’s Anatomy

cat's tongue
Stella Noble
Written by Stella Noble

Have you ever been licked by a cat? Did it hurt? You’ve probably noticed how rough the tongues of our feline friends are. This may lead you to wonder: “Why are cats tongues rough?”

Even if you are a new cat owner and you haven’t experienced being licked by your pet, it is still likely you will ask this question down the line because cats are fond of licking. A cat’s tongue is a powerful organ that you will come across countless times since it plays a lot of roles. The question pertaining to its texture is thus a legit concern that many pet owners like you have brought up. So we’ve taken the initiative to discuss the matter in this article.

In this article, we will first discuss what exactly makes a cat’s tongue rough. Then we will explain what cats use their rough tongues for. At the end of this post, you should be more appreciative of the rough texture of cat’s tongue.

The Reason Why Your Cat’s Tongue is So Rough

cat's tongue anatomy

The roughness of a cat’s tongue becomes more noticeable when you’ve experienced being licked by a dog. Aside from noticeably hanging out, a dog’s tongue is so smooth that you won’t complain about being hurt or irritated by it.

On the other hand, with cats, the presence of papillae makes their tongues rough. Papillae are small bumps that face backward and create the rough sensation whenever a cat licks you.

Papillae are made of keratin, the same material that human fingernails are made of. Aside from making papillae rough, keratin also makes them very strong.

The orientation of papillae is also a noteworthy mention. These small bumps face back towards the throat, giving them a claw-like appearance and purpose.

There are four types of papillae on a cat’s tongue:

  • Filiform or conical papillae – this is the most common. These bumps point backward and assist in grooming. They also help our whiskered friends whenever they eat their prey, specifically in removing the flesh from the bones. This type of papillae is found on the front half of a cat’s tongue. It is also the cause of the sandpaper-like sensation you feel whenever your pet licks you.

  • Foliate papillae – the word foliate means leaf-like. Foliate papillae is the largest type. It is arranged in two groups found on either side of the cat’s tongue and just in front of the circumvallate papillae.

  • Circumvallate papillae – found at the back of the tongue, these are shaped in a v-like row behind the fungiform papillae.

  • Fungiform papillae – these are papillae which are shaped like mushroom and located along the sides of the cat’s tongue.

The Functionality of Cat Tongues

Cat tongues are one of the best, most multipurpose parts of their bodies. It seems that cats are always using it every minute. Their tongue is not only meant for tasting food; it also comes in handy for grooming as well as leaving their scent behind.

Let’s look at the many uses of tongue for our feline friends.

#1: Grooming

cat grooming

Cats groom for their survival. When a cat grooms himself after eating a prey, he is removing all traces that can alert other potential preys in the area of his presence. And in the wild, cats do this to protect themselves against bigger, stronger animals that can hunt them down.

Also, their tongue helps keep cats cool through evaporation. While cats are gifted with sweat glands in their paws, they can get uncomfortable when the temperatures rise. Dampening their fur with saliva using their tongue can keep them cool during the hot summer days.

Cats rely on their tongues for grooming. Unlike us humans, cats don’t have the benefit of using a hairbrush. That’s all right because a cat’s tongue is more effective than a brush in grooming their fur.

If you haven’t noticed, adult cats spend nearly half of their waking hours grooming themselves. Their tongue is well-used during those times because it is effective in removing fleas and dirt from their bodies.

Researchers from the Georgia Tech University describe cat tongues as the feline equivalent of human hairbrushes. According to research, the cat tongue is able to move in four directions in a single sweep.

It is also efficient in removing tangles. Unlike human hair brushes which have bristles that bend and allow the tangle to slide off the top, cat tongues have those claw-like bumps that are able to maintain contact and remove the knot in the hair.

While those barbs are designed to grab and pull various material like their fur, the papillae also make it impossible for our feline friends to spit out loose hair they’ve pulled off during grooming.

Those barbs, after all, lie flat when the tongue is not in a licking mode. Thus, they end up ingesting the hair which accumulates in their system. They would eventually cough up the accumulated hair in the form of hairballs.

It’s not good for cats to cough up hairballs too often. Therefore, you should make it a habit to help your pet get rid of extra fur by brushing them whenever you can. This is very much true if you have a longhaired breed such as a Himalayan or a Maine Coon.

The cat tongue will also come in handy in embarrassing moments. Have you noticed your cat licking himself after falling off of a counter? He did so to make himself feel better after the accident. This illustrates how grooming is a self-soothing behavior for felines who feel anxious or stressed.

#2: Hunting/Eating

cat eating

A cat’s tongue is also designed for cats to be able to eat their prey quickly. When a cat catches a prey like a mouse, the tongue literally helps him to strip the flesh from the bones.

The papillae also serve like a mousetrap, preventing the prey from escaping the cat’s mouth. And working with the strong jaws, the tongue of the cat ensures that your feline friend will be able to eat his prey in the shortest time possible.

Cats, especially domesticated ones, aren’t really into hunting the way their bigger cousins like tigers are in the wild. So you can only imagine how potent and efficient the tongues of tigers are. In fact, it is said that the tongue of tigers can lick the paint right off the walls in their cages in the zoo—that’s how sticky it is!

Also, you should be wary for your cat whenever he is playing with a string. Because of his sticky tongue, he could ingest the string without you noticing it. And since the papillae is facing the throat, getting the string out of his mouth often becomes a big challenge.

#3: Drinking Water

cat drinking water

Cats also rely on their tongues for drinking water. Think of the cat tongue as a miniature cup that the feline uses to drink water, mess-free.

In the past, the theory was that felines extended their tongues straight down toward a bowl. The tip of the tongue was believed to curl backward in such a way that the liquid would first make contact with the top of the tongue.

However, recent studies show that there is a different mechanism involved in cats drinking water. According to studies from universities like Virginia Tech and MIT, cats have a unique way of using their tongue to drink water. The tip of the cat’s tongue first touches the surface of the water before the feline draws his tongue back up.

From that quick movement, a column of liquid is formed between the tongue and the liquid’s surface. The feline then closes his mouth and snags the top of the column to drink while keeping his chin dry. On average, cats need to do this 3 – 4 times to satisfy their thirst.

#4: Bonding with Humans

cat licking man's hand

Cats often use their tongue to interact with humans. Our whiskered friends may seem aloof and anti-social, but as you may know, they can be expressive too. And one way for them to show this is by licking their human parents.

When a cat licks his human owner, it is often followed by a playful bite. There will also be times when he would grab you with his paws. Don’t be alarmed if your cat does these to you. This is a behavior that he learned from his mother. It’s a display of love and affection, so you should appreciate it!

You should also remember that cats are territorial in nature. Your cat licking you is one way for him to let the whole world know that you are his parent, and that you don’t belong to anyone else.

Cat licking is also a means for them to comfort themselves. When a mother licks her kittens, she is comforting them. This is the same thing that your pet is trying to do whenever he licks you. It is an important aspect of social behavior that reinforces his bond with you.

The bottom line is that you should not feel offended or awkward when your cat licks you, no matter how rough his tongue is. Think of it as your cat’s way of expressing how much he appreciates you.

See Also: What Does It Mean When a Cat Licks You

Why Do Cats Stick Out Their Tongues?

cats with their tongues out

Now that you understand how versatile and useful this feline muscle is, you may also ask about what it means whenever your cat sticks out his tongue.

Let’s say that you caught your cat sleeping with his tongue out. What does this mean?

Well, it is normal for cats who are sleeping to stick out their tongues. After all, a cat is completely relaxed during slumber so he may open his jaw just enough for his tongue to stick out. Don’t worry as this is a completely normal scenario for most cats and even kittens.

If your cat repeatedly sticks out his tongue when you feed him, then it is a sure sign that he doesn’t like the taste of the food you gave him. Thus he’s trying to get rid of the remains of the food from his mouth.

But this situation is not considered normal if your cat continues to stick out his tongue. It can be indicative that something is stuck in between the teeth. Check his mouth to see if there are lesions or blockages. If there are, then you might have to bring him to the vet.

If your cat is drooling excessively and continues to stick out his mouth, then there is the possibility that your pet is suffering from periodontal disease which makes it hard for him to close his mouth. This can be due to bacterial infections such as gingivitis or periodontitis. Again, a trip to the veterinarian may be your best bet to determine the cause.

In case your cat has a red tongue and is drooling and panting, then it is likely due to the heat. This is obviously a given during the hot summer months. Long haired cat breeds are notoriously prone to heatstroke.

Cats who suffer from this condition would try to groom themselves excessively in a bid to cool off. They would also look restless in trying to find a cool place. Other symptoms of a cat suffering from heatstroke are vomiting, stumbling, and lethargy. Don’t dismiss these symptoms; a cat who’s having a heatstroke may collapse and eventually die.

See Also: How Hot is Too Hot for Cats

Wrap Up

cat showing her tongue when yawning

In a nutshell, the roughness of a cat’s tongue is due to the presence of barbs called papillae. Those small and claw-like structures make the feline tongue prickly to the touch. But you should also understand that those barbs contribute to the well-being of your pet.

Cats use their tongues for numerous purposes such as drinking water, eating, hunting, and grooming themselves. And yes, cats also rely on their tongues to express their fondness for their human parents.

Cats don’t really stick out their tongues as frequently as dogs do. But when they do, the act can mean different things. It may indicate a health problem like periodontal disease or heat stroke. Or your cat may want to tell you how much he hates the food you gave him.

All in all, you shouldn’t ignore what your cat is trying to tell you with his tongue. Indeed, the cat’s tongue is a more powerful and versatile part of the feline anatomy than you might have expected!

What do you often see your cat do with his tongue? Did we miss anything important? Leave us a comment below and share your opinion! For more interesting cat facts, check out our article on what are cats whiskers for.

About the author
Stella Noble
Stella Noble

Stella Noble lives in Warren, Michigan with her family and three cats. She is a Certified Cat Trainer and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.