Sci­ence Gets The Scoop On Fe­line Tongues

The scoop on how the sur­face of your kitty’s tongue is a blue­print for deep clean­ing


Cat lovers know when kit­ties groom, their tongues are pretty scratchy. Us­ing high-tech scans and some other tricks, sci­en­tists are learn­ing how those sand­pa­pery tongues help cats get clean The se­cret: Tiny hooks that spring up on the tongue — with scoops built in to carry saliva deep into all that fur.

A team of me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neers re­ported the find­ings re­cently, and say they’re more than a cu­rios­ity. They could lead to in­ven­tions for pets and peo­ple.

“Their tongue could help us ap­ply flu­ids, or clean car­pets, or ap­ply medicine” to hairy skin, said Ge­or­gia Tech lead re­searcher Alexis Noel, who is seek­ing a patent for a 3D -printed, tongue-like brush. Cats are fas­tid­i­ous, spend­ing up to a quar­ter of their wak­ing hours groom­ing. Noel’s in­ter­est was piqued when her cat, Mur­phy, got his tongue stuck in a fuzzy blan­ket. Sci­en­tists had long thought cat tongues were stud­ded with tiny cone-shaped bumps. Noel, work­ing in a lab known for an­i­mal-in­spired en­gi­neer­ing, won­dered why. First, CT scans of cats’ tongues showed they’re not cov­ered in cones but in claw-shaped hooks. They lie flat and rear-fac­ing, out of the way un­til, with a twitch of the tongue mus­cle, the lit­tle spines spring straight up, she ex­plained. The big sur­prise: Those spines con­tain hol­low scoops, Noel found. Turn­ing to zoos and taxi­der­mists for pre­served tongues to ex­am­ine, she found bob­cats, cougars, snow leop­ards, even lions and tigers share that trait.

When Noel touched the tips of pre­served spines — called papil­lae — with drops of food dye, they wicked up the liq­uid.

A house cat’s nearly 300 papil­lae hold a small amount of saliva that’s re­leased when the tongue presses on fur.

Papil­lae were only slightly longer in lions than in house cats, al­though larger fe­lines’ tongues hold many hun­dreds more, Noel and Ge­or­gia Tech as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor David L. Hu re­ported in Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Acad­emy of Sci­ences. Next, Noel mea­sured cat fur, which holds lots of air to in­su­late like a down jacket.

Sure enough, com­press that fur and in nu­mer­ous types of cat, the dis­tance to the skin matches the length of the tongue’s spines, she found.

An ex­cep­tion: Per­sian cats with their su­per-long fur that vet­eri­nar­i­ans cau­tion must be brushed daily to avoid mat­ting. The As­so­ci­ated Press Health & Sci­ence Depart­ment re­ceives sup­port from the Howard Hughes Med­i­cal In­sti­tute’s Depart­ment of Sci­ence Ed­u­ca­tion. The AP is solely re­spon­si­ble for all con­tent.


Do­mes­tic cats groom their fur up to a quar­ter of the time they are awake, and they are do­ing a good job of deep clean­ing.

The tongue of a do­mes­tic cat, seen in a close-up at left, is re­mark­ably sim­i­lar in shape to that of a tiger, right.

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