Why do cats have rough tongues?

6cbf26ca-1e6b-42a8-8a19-0efd44ced142

Have you ever wondered why it feels like sandpaper when your cat licks you? Find out more about why cats have rough tongues...

Cats’ tongues feel like sandpaper on our skin because they have little backwards-pointing hook-shaped barbs. These are called filiform papillae and come in different lengths, with those at the centre of the tongue being longest. These tough spikes scrape the meat off bones of their prey and pull it into the back of the mouth.

Cats also use these barbs on their tongue like a hairbrush to detangle their fur, rid it of fleas and other foreign bodies, and clean out the dead hairs. The little spikes stimulate the sebaceous glands at the base of each hair and help spread oil through their coat to waterproof it. Each small barb is hollow and collects saliva from the mouth, which is then spread over the coat during grooming. This helps cats cool down in hot weather.

Usually, the tongue papillae — found in lions as well as domestic cats — are long enough to penetrate the thickness of the fur. But pedigrees like Persians have such long, thick fur that the barbs on their tongue cannot cope. Without human grooming help, their fur develops mats. The way the barbs face inwards can also cause problems to cats when they are shedding. The dead fur cannot be spat outwards because the barbs face inwards so the fur ends up being swallowed. This can result in hairballs, which then have to be vomited up.