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What Are the Rough ‘Spines’ on a Cat’s Tongue?

Cat tongues may look a lot like human tongues from far away, but a close-up look will reveal a big difference: they have tiny, sharp “spines” on their surface. The roughness of a cat’s tongue might seem a bit strange at first — especially considering how soft cat fur is in comparison — but there’s actually a reasonable explanation as to why cat tongues look and feel the way they do.

Why are cat tongues rough?

As you may be aware, cats groom themselves with their tongues quite regularly. In fact, cats can spend anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of their time doing this, according to Vet Street. (It’s no wonder why so many cats hate our baths; they probably think we do an inferior job.) But what a lot of people don’t realize about cat grooming is that it doesn’t only involve bathtime; it also includes time for hairbrushing — and that’s where the spines on a cat’s tongue comes in. 

Alexis Noel, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, explained this feline phenomenon during the 69th Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics in November 2016. Intrigued by her own pet cat’s tongue, she decided to investigate the uses for kitty tongue spines with her research team. And the way she described a cat’s natural hairbush might convince you that it’s more useful than human hairbrushes.

cat tongues

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

“When the cat’s tongue hits a snag, it pulls on the hooks, which rotate to penetrate the snag even further. Like a heat-seeking missile for snags, the hook’s mobility allows the cat to better tease tangles apart,” Noel said in a press release. “A typical hairbrush has spines that stick straight out. When hair collects on the brush, it forms a thick mat that must be removed by hand. In comparison, the cat’s flexible spines make it easier to clean.”

But before you get too jealous, it’s worth keeping in mind that cat tongues do include a major downside — especially when you consider the direction in which the spines are set within the mouth. This leads to a common cat problem that just about any feline fan will immediately recognize.

“When not in use, the spines on a cat tongue lie nearly flat against its surface, like overlapping shingles,” Noel said. “This configuration provides openings in a single direction, enabling the mat of hair around the bristles to be removed with a single finger swipe. These openings face the cat’s throat and [are] also why cats swallow their hair and end up with hairballs.”

Yikes. Although cat tongues certainly sound handy and convenient, we think we’ll stick to our manmade hairbrushes for our own manes — no hairballs for us, please!

Next, check out some adorable two-faced cats that’ll make you do a double-take in the video below:

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