Why Cats' Tongues Are Rough

Why Are Cats’ Tongues Rough Like Sandpaper?

Have you ever touched your cat’s tongue, maybe to give medicines or even to just pet her? Or have you ever felt her tongue when she licked you, right after you got back from work?

If you have never felt her tongue, maybe you should try now to get a feeling of what it’s like.

You’ll notice that your cat’s tongue is rough. And there’s a good reason for that too.

cats tongues

So Why Are Cats’ Tongues Rough?

The scientific answer is that cat’s tongues have many small and backward facing barbs or papillae on it, and this is what causes the tongues to feel so rough.

The barbs are made of a substance called keratin, the same substance that makes up your nails. So, if you’ve ever rubbed your unkempt nails against your skin, you’ll understand the reason for the roughness of your cat’s tongue!

If you ever get a chance to see your cat’s tongue under a microscope, you’ll be surprised to see that these barbs look like tiny teeth, and thousands of them are present on your cat’s tongue.

Now before you jump to doing something, these barbs are good for her and have been handed down to her by her ancestors who had to survive in the wild. Though it may not be so useful for your cat as she cuddles with you at home, it was vital for the survival of her ancestors who had to hunt animals and even protect themselves from predators.

Here are some of the uses of barbs on your cat’s tongue.

  • One of the main functions of a barb is to help the cat rasp the meat from the prey. Remember in the wild, there was no one to feed her in a pretty bowl. She had to hunt and tear out the meat from the bones for everyday survival. And barbs helped her to do just that.
  • Barbs play an important role in providing the necessary food for your cat. It provides a grip that helps the cat to hold its prey. If you’ve noticed, cats tend to hunt small animals like rats that have a smooth and silky skin. So, these barbs help to hold the prey tightly.
  • Barbs also help to keep your cat clean and beautiful! Yes, they help to clean out all the debris, dirt and dust that gets collected on her coat. You can think of it as something akin to a mop that your cat uses to get all these unwanted stuff from her skin.
  • These barbs are a disadvantage as well because when your cat cleans her skin, she will not be able to get them out of her mouth. Since these barbs are backward facing, they invariably end up in her stomach and this explains how you found hairballs in your cat’s mouth. This is also the reason why your cat should stay away from yarn because she just can’t spit it out.
  • Barbs also help a cat to remove traces of blood and flesh of its prey from its skin. This is important to ensure that the smell of blood and flesh does not attract predators towards it. So, barbs go beyond just grooming and play an important role in the survival of your cat, or rather its ancestors who had to live in uncertain conditions.
  • Barbs help to keep the cat cool during summer months, as the evaporation from the mouth gives it a cool feeling. However, this could also dry your cat’s mouth quickly, so make sure you always have a bowl of clean water nearby for her to dip her tongue at any time.
  • Another interesting function of the barbs is that it doubles up as taste buds. Interestingly, the cat has a lot fewer taste buds than humans and it cannot process many flavors like sweets and spices. So, the next time you feed your cat, keep this aspect in mind and do not create unwanted habits that may be harmful to your cat.
  • Your cat’s barbs also help it to understand the texture of different foods. Surprisingly, the texture is more important than flavor for your cat and this is why it spends more time analyzing the texture, which as cat owners, we tend to think that she is relishing the food. Also, your cat has preferences for certain foods in terms of texture and this is taken into account in all the commercial cat foods available today.
  • Have you ever seen your cat holding its kittens to take it to a safe place? Well, barbs help here too. The cat holds the kittens in its mouth and the barbs give the right grip against the soft skin of the kittens. Don’t worry, kittens can never get hurt when its mother is holding them in her tight barbs.
  • Barbs help the cat to drink water too. Though in the past, it was believed that cats lap up water with their tongues, research now shows that cats curl up the upper side of their tongue downwards to push water into its throat. Here, the barbs act as small pillars that stop the water from flowing outside due to gravity. Your cat drinks water at the rate of about four times per second, and this means, it is difficult to see what’s going on with a naked human eye.

Related Post: Best Water Bowl for Cats

In short, cats tongues are rough because they have small tiny teeth-like papillae or barbs on it. These barbs are essential for the very survival of your cat, as it uses these barbs to catch food, enjoy its texture and taste, hold its prey, clean itself, drink water and protect its kittens from predators.

However, the downside is you’ll feel like a sandpaper is over your skin when your cat licks you, but that’s a part of the natural survival mechanism of your cats.

So, don’t be alarmed by this rough texture and your cat doesn’t need a trip to the vet because of this rough texture.


  1. Kate Hughes, Cool Facts About Your Cat’s Tongue, PetMD
  2. Why Does My Cat… Have a Tongue Like Sandpaper?, VetStreet

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