If you look closely at your cat’s tongue, you will see many small structures on the surface. At first glance, they look like hair. However, the texture feels similar to that of sandpaper.
Do cats have hair on their tongues?
No, cats do not have hair on their tongues. Those hair-like structures that you see on the surface of their tongues are called papillae. Papillae are made up of keratin which incidentally, is the same materials that your nails are made of.
Why do cats have papillae?
Cats have papillae on their tongues for grooming, temperature regulation and for grasping pray.
Your cat can spend as much as half of his waking hours grooming himself. It has been said that cats spend an inordinate time grooming themselves because of their fastidious nature. But how exactly can a cat keep his coat in tiptop shape if all he does is lick himself with his tongue?
The answer lies in his tongue’s papillae.
A cat’s tongue contains hundreds of these miniature structures. And each of these is shaped like cat claws. This shape enables each spine to penetrate knots and tangles on the fur and eliminate these.
Think of the papillae as your feline’s built-in comb. Although cats are experts in cleaning and grooming their fur because their flexibility allows them to reach different body parts, the importance of the papillae cannot be overstated.
Every time your cat licks his fur, the papillae rotate when they encounter tangles and knots on the coat. In turn, this ability to rotate gives these small spines the ability to go deeper into the tangles.
It does not take much pressure to tease knots and tangles apart because the tiny spines on your cat’s tongue can reach the layer of fur next to his skin.
The only cat breed that cannot do an adequate job of grooming himself is the Persian. Because of the breed’s thick fur, his papillae are rendered useless. This is why it is essential to brush your Persian’s coat daily.
2. Temperature regulation
The papillae also perform another key function: helping keep your cat cool down, especially during hot days.
Each individual spine contains a U-shaped cavity that allows them to carry saliva. Picture yourself dipping the tip of a tissue paper into water. Did you notice how much water the tissue absorbed? Essentially, that is how each spine collects saliva from your cat’s mouth.
Initially, experts said that the papillae are hollow and cone-shaped. However, recent studies now say that these tiny spines are curved. This means that the spines can wick water through surface tension. This would not be possible if the papillae are hollow and cone-shaped.
Now, when your cat licks himself while grooming, he deposits saliva from his tongue to his fur. Once the saliva deposited on your cat’s coat evaporates, his body temperature can drop down by as much as 30 percent.
Furthermore, saliva also aids in cleansing your cat’s fur.
3. Grasping prey
Apart from keeping your cat clean and cool, the papillae also serve another key function: holding down prey in his mouth.
Like other predators, felines have strong jaws that are more than capable of holding their quarry in their mouths. However, that does not mean that persistent prey cannot escape.
The tiny spines on a cat’s tongue give him an added boost in holding prey in his mouth. But even if your cat does not hunt animals, the papillae can also help him pick tiny pieces of food that may slip off from his mouth.
How do cats use their tongues?
Apart from helping keep a cat clean and cool and enabling him to have a firm grasp of his prey, the tongue also helps a feline drink water.
Unlike other animals that lap up water by forming the tongue into a scoop, it was discovered that cats curve their tongues downward before flicking them into a water source and then back into their mouths.
This quick motion creates a water column that cats catch with their mouths. Felines then need to close their mouths fast to prevent water from escaping.
But what about tasting food? Cats have highly-developed senses. But the only exception is their tongues. A cat’s tongue has about a few hundred taste buds. That pales in comparison to the human tongue that has thousands.
To compensate for their poor sense of taste, cats have such a highly-developed sense of smell.
Finally, your cat can also use his tongue to clean wounds and prevent infections. As he licks the wounded part of his body, he is removing dirt, debris, and other contaminants that may cause serious infections.
Your cat’s tongue is amazing
Although your pet’s tongue may do a poor job in tasting food, it is amazing in a variety of ways, from keeping your pet clean to preventing mats and tangles and everything in between.
Image: istockphoto.com / vauvau