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Blue Sky Science: Why do cats have rough tongues?

Arianna Taylor

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Why do cats have rough tongues?

Cats have functional barbs or papillae on their tongue made of keratin, the same material that nails and our hair is made out of. They’re very rigid little barbs that face backwards.

There are a couple theories for why cats have these barbs, and the first says they’re for grooming. The barbs act almost like a hairbrush and will collect any loose hair.

Some cats can actually over-groom with their tongue and will cause hair loss if they’re overdoing it. For cats with very long hair, humans may have to help them with the grooming because their tongue is not enough to keep themselves clean.

Barbs also play a role in helping the cat to eat. Cats are predators, and in their natural environment they would be catching prey. That barbed tongue helps to hold the prey and helps with removing muscle and loosening tissues from the bone through licking it.

Cats can have significant issues in their mouth causing inflammation to their tongue and loss of those papillae. Sometimes the change that happens during an illness can be permanent, meaning that they may have an area of their tongue that is no longer rough.

When that happens, cat owners have to step up their grooming because the cats won’t be able to groom themselves effectively. If your cat has had any of these health issues like oral herpes or some inflammatory changes on their tongue, be on the lookout for a loss of papillae. Grooming may be something that you can then help them out with.

About Blue Sky Science

Blue Sky Science is a collaboration of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Morgridge Institute for Research. The questions are primarily posed by visitors attending Discovery Building events.

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