Cat Tongues: How Do They Work and Why Do They Use Them So Often?

Cats are famous for their finicky self-grooming.

However, the way in which their tongues actually work to get them clean has remained somewhat of a mystery.

So how does their tongue actually work in cleaning them? And why do they do it so much?

cat licking

The Tounge

A researcher at Georgia Tech began investigating cat tongues after seeing a cat lick a thick blanket and getting its tongue stuck. They found that a cats’ rough pink tongue acts just like a hair brush, however much more advanced than your average human hairbrush.

Despite the coarse and scratchy feeling of your cats’ licks, your cat’s tongue is not like sandpaper at all. Cat tongues are covered in tiny, claw shaped backward-facing spines made of keratin (the same material as fingernails). Researchers found that in one single grooming sweep, a cats’ tongue moves in four directions, working as a flexible comb that adjusts to any knots it encounters.

The top of the tongue spines are much like claws, with a curved hook-like shape which works like Velcro to clean their coats. When the spines are not in licking mode, they lie flat enabling collected fur to slide right off and be swallowed.

kitten lying down

Clean from the Start

Straight from birth, mothers begin to lick their kittens in order to stimulate the release of urine and faeces, provoke them to suckle, and provide them with comfort.

Kittens then begin grooming themselves and littermates a few weeks later.

This is known as ‘allogrooming’ which often continues into their adulthood as a social activity that strengthens a bond between cats.



Cats spend half of their waking time grooming themselves or other cats. 

When a cat grooms itself via licking, their barb-like tongues work to stimulate the sebaceous glands at the base of their hairs and spread oil throughout the hairs. This is how they maintain their clean and shiny coats!

Their self-grooming also gets rid of any dirt or parasites (such as fleas) hidden in their fur and their saliva helps them cool down on hotter days as they don’t have sweat glands.

Cats will also groom just because it feels good and they enjoy it!

two cats

What Does It Mean if My Cat Grooms Me?

Cats are very social animals. If they are licking you it’s because they are displaying affection and trust, just like the way they would have licked their mother and littermates. They also may be licking to taste the salt substance on your skin.

cat and human

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