Ever wonder why it can downright hurt when a cat tongue licks your skin? These amazing self-groomers have that rough tongue for a reason. Covered with thousands of back-hooking barbs composed of keratin similar to that in our fingernails, cats tongues have evolved to help them in several different ways. It's no wonder, then, that it actually hurts if your cat licks you repeatedly on your skin. Since the barbs on the tongue are composed of keratin similar to our fingernails, being licked by your cat is not that different from being scratched with fingernails.
This rough tongue serves your cat well, though. The rough barbs act like a hairbrush as your cat licks its fur, separating any potentially tangled hairs. At the same time, the cat's saliva serves as "bath water", helping to clean away dirt and oil.
That's not the only function of a cat tongue, however. That sandpaper-like tongue is excellent at picking up small bits of food when eating and also is used to lap water. Have you ever noticed that when your cat drinks, his tongue actually pulls the water into the mouth by curving under rather than upward? Makes sense when you think about the nose-full of water the cat would get if he lapped upward.
The tongue of a cat also is loaded with taste buds, said to be even more sensitive and varied than that of dogs. Maybe that's why your dog will eat pretty much anything while cats have a reputation for being finicky. (I personally believe most finicky cats are created by their humans, but I'll save that discussion for another day!)
While the cat tongue is an amazing self-grooming tool, keep in mind that all that loose hair that is ingested while your kitty is cleaning herself is not good for her. It turns into those nasty hairballs which are no fun for you to step on or clean up and not good for your cat's intestinal tract.
We have a history of treating hairballs after they occur with hairball diets, lubricants, and sometimes even surgery. Only recently has the idea of hairball prevention by preventing the actual ingestion of so much hair come to the forefront of our treatment. Why is it that the ideas that make the most sense are sometimes the last ones we have?
At any rate, regular brushing with a deshedding tool is the right way to address the hairball problem. As wonderful as the cat tongue is for grooming, the associated ingestion of hair isn't wonderful for you or your favorite feline. And it can be prevented to a large extent. If you aren't already deshedding your cat on a regular basis, start today! It's an important part of good preventative health care for your cat.