The Rough Tongue of your Cat

All cat owners are aware that cats are fastidious when it comes to grooming. In fact, it is thought that cats spend between 30 and 50 percent of their day grooming themselves.

The tongue of the feline feels like rough sandpaper and is covered with tiny hook-like barbs called papillae. The barbs are actually pointing backwards, which serve a number of functions.

  • Firstly, the strength of the hooks provide the abrasiveness a cat needs for self-grooming. The papillae or barbs are largely made from keratin, which is the main constituent found in fingernails and which helps us understand the strength and coarseness of these papillae. Their rough tongue stimulates secretion from the sebaceous glands. This effectively covers their coat with a protective layer, which protects them from water. Your cat contorts its body in many positions to wash all over. For those spots that cannot be reached, they will lick their paws and use them like a brush. It is common in multi cat households for them to help wash each other.
  • Secondly, the strength of the barbs assist wild or outdoor cats to strip flesh off the bones of prey, or to hold their struggling prey.
  •  Thirdly, the barbs on the feline tongue may help to prevent the cat from swallowing dangerous materials such as string or cotton. As we know, this is not always successful, but it may reduce the amount swallowed if they were not present at all.

 When a cat licks you, it indicates the highest form of affection between you and your cat.


The tongue of a cat reacts to temperature and shows a preference for foods at room temperature. This is evident when you put the remainder of a can of cat food in the fridge overnight, and if you serve it the next day your cat shows little interest in the cold cat food.


The complexity of a cat’s sense of taste is controversial. There are those that believe cats can distinguish between the tastes of sour, salty, bitter and sweet. There are others that think that because they rarely show interest in sugary foods, that they are unable to taste sweets and that they can only taste if the meat is bird, cow or lamb. The first line of thought seems to be more acceptable as it now been confirmed that cats have a few sweet sensitive, taste buds on the back of their tongues. Regardless of expert opinions, I believe that felines can taste sweet and salty foods. Leave an empty icecream bowl lying around, and without fail it will be taste tested. One of my cats enjoys licking the salt from rice crackers, and another enjoyed the occasional slice of cheese. I also had a Siamese cat that mischievously tucked into a Blackforest birthday cake when we were not looking (it was a giveaway when we saw this innocent animal with cream and chocolate gratings all over her face).


Cats have undeservedly earned a bad reputation for being finicky but this may be the result of them having less taste buds than other species. Felines have 473 taste buds, dogs have in excess of 1700 and humans have approximately 9000 taste buds.


A felines sense of smell and taste are closely linked. They are able to smell and taste at the same time by utilising the Jacobson’s Organ (see article on catnip). It is thought that the smell of food and not the taste of it, is what increases a cat’s appetite. This is evident when a cat is off its food, a common remedy often recommended is to slightly warm their food and the resultant aroma, may solve the problem.


The smell of food also helps the cat decide whether the food is good or bad. I learnt this the hard way. While holidaying in Vanuatu, I ordered far too much lunch for me to consume. So I had it packed up, and went home to feed the pizza and sweet potato wedges to the many starving cats on the island. They happily devoured the pizza, but walked away from the wedges. They sensed the food was bad, and that it was. I mistakenly thought they were being fussy or finicky, but in fact the wedges were green and therefore poisonous.


This highly developed sense of smell may also cause a cat to refuse to eat for other reasons than off food. A cat’s dish which has not had strong detergent completely washed from it may be one reason. The smell of ants having been on food will also result in a cat refusing to eat her food. Refusal to eat for two or three days may indicate illness and its essential to consult a veterinary.


The huge variety of dry foods flooding the market also seems to indicate that a cat’s tongue also reacts to the texture of food in its mouth.


It is interesting to note that a cat’s tongue becomes spoon shaped when drinking- enabling her to lap up liquids in quantity. The tongue flicks quickly in and out of the water, swallowing after every third or fourth lap.


Excessive Licking

It would be remiss of me not to mention excessive licking and the reasons and consequences of such an action. Excessive licking may be the result of an itchy or painful area of their body. Compulsive licking at the base of the tail may indicate fleas, licking their backs or stomachs or other areas may indicate food or pollen allergies.

If a physical health problem has been ruled out by your veterinarian, then the problem may be psychological. The excessive licking could simply be a habit which needs to be addressed or it could be anxiety or stress caused by some type of change. Again this needs to be identified and addressed. Plenty of love and cuddles, quality play time, providing areas of safety and retreat may overcome this problem. Cats are creatures of consistency and predictability and it is advisable to introduce change gradually.

Excessive licking can cause excessive hairballs (see Article How To Prevent Hairballs In Cats and Cat Hair Balls), but it can also cause the skin to break, and therefore increasing the risk of infection. Bald spots which are exposed to sun may result in sunburn, and a bald patch in winter may result in frost bite.





Author: C Lynch