The High-Tech Tongue of a Cat

Author: Emily Burt, Nursing Team

March 24, 2011

Cat Tongue

Ever wonder why it feels scratchy when your cat licks you or how they manage to get any water in their mouths when they lap at the water so quickly? The answer to both these questions lies in the cat's unique, remarkable tongue. Their tongues are multipurpose and well suited to our feline friends.

Everyone knows how much time cats spend grooming, but unlike other animals, a cat's tongue doesn't simply wet their fur. The surface is covered with hundreds of backward curved spines called papillae. They are made up of keratin, just like your fingernails, and thus are very firm. This helps cats groom, by giving them a built-in brush that helps catch oils, dirt, and excess fur. They are also the cause of the scratchiness you feel when your cat licks you.

As for drinking, a cat has no ability to close its lips and create suction, and its tongues are too small to "scoop" water into its mouths. So how do they get enough moisture? The New York Times covered a study that showed cats actually drink with just the tip of their tongues, using surface tension to overcome gravity and draw the water into their mouths.

As you can see, cats' tongues are well suited to the lifestyle of a feline, allowing them to groom easily, taste well, and drink quietly. Cats are truly unique animals and all of their many adaptations help them be the mysterious creatures we know and love.