Cats spend almost a quarter of their waking hours grooming, and their tongues are wonderfully specialized for this task, allowing them to clean, cool, and untangle themselves with ease. Anyone who’s ever been licked by a cat knows their tongues feel sandpaper-y. This is due to rear-facing hook-like structures called papillae that have a stiffness comparable to human fingernails.
The papillae are hollow, and their U-shaped tip helps them wick up saliva, which the cat deposits deep into its undercoat when it licks. Although the papillae only hold about 5% of the volume of saliva on the cat’s tongue, this wicking action is key because most of the tongue surface can’t reach the inner coat; only the papillae do. The saliva that reaches these dense inner hairs is important not only for cleaning the fur, but for helping the cat cool off. As the saliva evaporates, it carries heat away with it, just like sweating does for us.
The papillae are key to untangling fur, but their shape also makes it easy to remove hairs caught on the tongue. Researchers built a 3D-printed cat-inspired hair brush to show how efficient and easy to clean a cat’s tongue can be! (Video credit: Science; research credit: A. Noel and D. Hu)