Why Do Cats Curl Their Tongues? The Surprising Reason Behind This Feline Behavior

Why Kitty Curles That Tongue

Chances are your feline companion has curled, curled, and curled that tongue some more right before your very eyes. You watch as kitty meticulously grooms each hair on their body with that tiny, yet powerful tongue. A rough tongue that moves in a careful, calculated motion. Have you ever wondered why cats have such unique tongues that allow them to curl, extend, and contort with ease? Read on to learn all about the anatomical advantages behind your cat’s curious tongue.

Anatomy of a Cat’s Tongue

A cat’s tongue has a very unique anatomy that gives it a rough, sandpapery texture. This is due to the structure of the papillae, which are small, hooked, spine-like structures covering the entire surface of the tongue (source). There are four different types of papillae on a cat’s tongue, each with a distinct shape and function. The filiform papillae are the largest, making up the rough texture. These contain keratinized spines that all point backwards, allowing the cat to rasp and scrape its fur and skin while grooming. The fungiform papillae have a mushroom shape and contain the taste buds. The foliate papillae have ridges and grooves for scraping meat from bones. And the vallate papillae are the largest, located at the back of the tongue and containing many taste buds. All of these papillae give the cat’s tongue its unique, raspy, sandpaper-like feel and allow for effective grooming and feeding (source).

Grooming

Cats use their tongues to groom and clean themselves. A cat’s tongue is covered in small, rear-facing barbs called papillae. These barbs act like a comb or brush to help remove loose hair and dirt from the cat’s coat 1. As the cat licks its fur, the papillae catch debris and work it out of the coat. Grooming helps keep the cat’s fur clean, removes dead hair, and distributes natural oils across the coat for conditioning. Cats will often lick the same spot repeatedly to ensure it is thoroughly groomed. The tongue also deposits saliva on the fur which acts as a cleansing and deodorizing agent. Without the abrasive papillae on their tongues, cats would have a much harder time keeping their coats clean and well-maintained.

Drinking Water

Cats curl their tongues in order to lap up water efficiently. Rather than using their tongues like spoons to scoop water into their mouths like dogs do, cats use a quick lapping motion to bring water up into their mouths.1 This curled tongue technique allows cats to lap water at a high frequency – around 4 times per second – enabling them to drink more efficiently than other mammals like dogs that submerge their tongues in water.2

Eating

Cats have backwards-facing, hook-like spikes known as papillae that cover their tongues (Hill’s Pet Nutrition, 2022). The papillae are designed to act like a scraper or comb. When cats eat, they use their tongues to rasp meat off bones and other surfaces. The barbs catch and rake bits of food into the cat’s mouth (PetMD, 2023).

The curling action brings food from the tip of the tongue back toward the throat. This allows cats to thoroughly clean meat from difficult-to-reach areas and swallow more efficiently. The papillae give the tongue a rough texture that is perfectly adapted for a carnivore that needs to scrape every last bit of flesh from bones.

Heat Dissipation

Cats curl their tongues to pant and dissipate heat. Cats don’t have sweat glands like humans do to help cool their bodies down. Instead, they rely on behaviors like panting to lower their temperature on hot days. When a cat pants, it rapidly moves air over its moist tongue, which helps cool the blood before it circulates through the body. By curling their tongues into a “u” shape, cats are able to increase the surface area that’s exposed to the air, maximizing the cooling effects of panting.

As explained by Hill’s Pet Nutrition, “The tip of the tongue is curled backward to create a hollow shape that acts like the bowl of a spoon.” https://www.hillspet.com/cat-care/behavior-appearance/cat-tongues-explained When a cat sticks out its tongue to pant, the larger surface area helps dissipate more heat with each rapid breath. So curling their tongues allows cats to cool down faster and more efficiently.

Communication

Cats use their tongues as part of their facial expressions and body language to communicate different moods [1]. For example, when a cat is content or relaxed, it may stick out the tongue while yawning or resting [2]. Curling the tongue can also indicate annoyance or irritation. Cats may curl their tongues if they are feeling territorial or upset [1].

The shape and position of the tongue provides visual cues for other cats and humans to interpret the cat’s emotions and intentions. A curled tongue combined with certain vocalizations, ear positions, and tail movements completes the full expression [2].

Nursing Kittens

Mother cats curl their tongues around kittens while nursing to help stimulate them and keep them warm. The rough texture of a cat’s tongue provides tactile stimulation for kittens as they nurse. This stimulation from the mother’s tongue helps encourage the kittens to continue nursing and get the nutrition they need. The tight curl of the mother’s tongue also helps hold the kitten close to the mother’s body, which keeps the kitten warm while nursing. Mother cats will continue this nursing technique typically until the kittens are around 4 weeks old and able to regulate their own body temperature.

As seen in this video of a mother cat nursing her kittens, the mother tightly curls her tongue around each kitten while allowing them to nurse: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMheEKbNGSU

Genetics

Cats’ unique ability to curl their tongues is linked to genetics. Research has identified a dominant gene that enables tongue rolling and curling in felines (Is tongue rolling in cats a genetic trait?). This gene causes structural changes in cats’ tongues, including the cone-shaped, backward-facing papillae that facilitate curling.

The vast majority of cats worldwide possess at least one copy of this gene, making tongue curling a nearly universal feline trait. However, in rare cases, genetic mutations can disrupt the gene and prevent tongue curling. Nonetheless, these instances are highly uncommon, as the gene has become widespread in cat populations through evolution.

While the tongue curling gene originated in cats, there has been some investigation into whether related versions of the gene exist in other species like humans. But conclusive evidence has not been found linking tongue rolling abilities in humans to the cat gene (Is tongue rolling in cats a genetic trait?). So while tongue curling remains an iconic cat behavior, its precise genetic underpinnings appear unique to felines.

Conclusion

In summary, a cat’s tongue has several key features that serve important purposes. Their tongues have tiny, backward-facing barbs called papillae that allow them to groom themselves efficiently by acting like a hairbrush. Papillae also help cats lap up liquids and scrape meat off bones when eating. Cats curl their tongues when drinking to create a spoon shape that scoops up water. They also curl their tongues to rasp meat off bones. A cat’s tongue also plays a role in heat regulation, communication, nursing kittens, and more.

One of the most unique aspects of a cat’s tongue is the ability to hook the papillae backwards while grooming and eating to gain more friction. Understanding why cats have the textured, agile tongues they do provides insight into cat behavior and anatomy. While a cat’s tongue may feel abrasive to humans, it allows cats to stay clean and consume food in an energy efficient way. The next time your cat greets you with a lick or two, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for this remarkable organ.

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