Our cats lead busy lives here at Turpentine. If they’re not sleeping, they’re cleaning themselves. On average, a housecat can spend 24% of their day cleaning themselves. Now imagine an animal 20 times that size. There’s more surface area to deal with and they need an effective tool for dealing with all that fur. That tool is their tongue.
A cat’s tongue has a rough feeling, like sandpaper. This feeling comes from hundreds of backward-facing keratin spines called filiform papillae. These spines are made of the same material as human fingernails and hair. For a long time, scientists believed that these spines were cone-shaped, however, more recent research has shown that these spines are scoop-shaped.
Cats groom their fur to remove parasites, detangle fur, redistribute oils, and keep them cool. The spines on the tongue all face the same direction and by pulling their tongue along their fur, a cat’s tongue acts like a brush. They are able to keep themselves clean as their tongue distributes and absorbs saliva through surface tension. It is also how cats drink water.
Unlike dogs, cats can’t pant to thermoregulate or expel heat. Their only sweat glands are on their paw pads. So by grooming themselves, cats are coating themselves with cooling saliva that helps them release heat. Approximately 25% of a cat’s heat loss can happen through grooming, while the other 75% is transferred by radiation from paws, ears, and hair. A study recorded a 62℉ difference between the skin and the top coat of fur after being groomed, which increases the cooling rate of the cat’s body.
Other theories propose that a cat’s sandpapery tongue could be used to grip meat and remove muscle and tissue from bones while eating. When our cats are given butcher at TCWR, our team will find completely clean bones the next day.
A cat’s tongue is very important for their health and survival. When one of our tigers, B.B. King, was diagnosed with cancer, the tumor was on his tongue. He survived chemotherapy but during his 9-month post-check-up, the tumor had come back. Our vet had made the decision to remove a chunk of his tongue with large enough margins that the cancer had a low chance of returning. It worked, and B.B. King is once again cancer-free. He did have to relearn how to use his tongue, but he’s doing fine. And his brother Mack helps with any of the grooming spots B.B. King can’t quite reach. However, too much tongue surface area being removed would be considered detrimental to B.B. King’s health and another alternative would have had to be considered. So as you can see, a tongue is one of a cat’s most important resources.
Next time you visit, see if you can spot a tongue! Our cats love to make funny faces and stick their tongues out. As we say here, sun’s out, tongues out!