Cat Got Your Tongue? – Some Like it Rough

Sep 15, 2012 by     1 Comment     Posted under: Tips & Advice

A wet, sloppy kiss from a dog can be like a gentle, warm embrace, but when our cats get friendly and try grooming us, the sensation is decidedly different!

Why do cat tongues feel so rough and harsh?  My three cats love to lick, and when they get going, it can feel almost like they are scraping through the skin.  You have to admire their commitment to keeping mom clean and well-groomed, but a little of that kind of licking goes a long way!

The reason our cats have such abrasive tongues is because the tops of their tongues are covered in tiny barbs.  These backwards-pointing hooks help carry food or whatever our cats are eating down the throat and into the stomach.   All members of the feline family, from big tigers to tiny domestic short hairs, have barbs on their tongues.  And although I’ve never been licked by a lion or tiger, I’d imagine the sensation would be size-appropriate and significantly amplified.    The skin scouring this would cause might make a big cat assume that there is more than one way to skin a human!

One other function of those barbs on our cats’s tongues is to help with grooming and keeping their coats tidy.  Cats are incredibly fastidious—it’s not unusual for your cat to spend upwards of one third of their waking hours grooming and keeping themselves clean.  In fact, if cats have fleas or lice or other parasites of the skin, they actually can consume a very large percentage through that meticulous grooming, which means that even if your cat has fleas, it can be difficult to find one!

Cats who have allergies are often itchy, and they sometimes lick excessively to try and relieve that itch.  The barbs on the tongue can literally shave hair off—sometimes it seems as though your cat can become bald overnight—and your plush feline can suddenly start resembling an action hero with three-day stubble.

We’re all familiar with hairballs, and the reason cats can have problems with them is that when they groom themselves (or their other cat buddies!), the barbs on their tongue snag the hair and physically move it down to the back of the throat, where the hair gets swallowed and transported into the stomach.  Depending on how much hair gets ingested and how irritating it is in the stomach, a cat might hack it up as the oh-so-familiar hairball, or the hair can pass through the other end via defecation.

The barbs on a cat’s tongue are formed by keratin, which is a fibrous protein structure that is present in skin, hair and nails.  Keratin is very tough, and that is why a cat’s tongue feels so rough—the barbs hold their shape when rubbed against something, much like a fingernail does.  Keratin is one of the strongest substances in the animal kingdom, and just like your own fingernails, those barbs on your cat’s tongue will never get dull or soften over time.

Another interesting tongue tidbit is that the barbs might play a role in whether a cat likes a certain food or not.  The shape of food affects how the tongue reacts to it, and that is why dry cat foods come in so many different shapes and forms.  Some cats like rounded shapes, while others seem to prefer more squared edges.  With wet food, some cats prefer the sloppier textured foods, and others seem more drawn to the pate varieties.  Cats use their tongue to pick up foods, and the barbs affect how the food sits on the tongue.

Barbed and ready for action, the fascinating and unique cat tongue is just one other reason why our favorite species is so special!

Dr Cathy Lund

Cathy Lund, DVM, owns and operates City Kitty Veterinary Care for Cats, a cat practice located in Providence, RI. She is also the board president and founder of the Companion Animal Foundation, a statewide, veterinary-based nonprofit organization that helps low-income pet owners afford essential veterinary care. She lives in Providence, and serves on several architectural and preservation commissions in the city, and is on the board of directors of WRNI, RI’s own NPR station. But her favorite activity is to promote the countless virtues of the “purr-fect” pet, the cat!

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  • Drstt

    Very interesting!

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