Tongue Tale – Importance for good grooming

Although grooming is a secondary function of the cat’s tongue, it performs the task so thoroughly that it has given the cat a well-deserved reputation as the cleanest of animals.


Joan Henderson

Various animals, including rodents, dogs and even horses and cows, use their tongues during grooming, but they either apply the tongues in a hit-and-miss way or use their claws for grooming. Only cats use their tongues to both wash and comb their fur from top to bottom. Not only does licking remove dirt and loose hairs, but it also stimulates glands in the cat’s skin to produce oils that help the skin stay supple and the hair shiny. Some of the oils contain cholesterol, which chemically transforms to vitamin D when hit by sunlight. Each time a cat licks itself, it ingests a health supply of this vitamin.

While the sun shines, watch your feline!
During hot summer months, a cat’s tongue helps regulate its temperature through panting and licking of the coat. Saliva spread on the coat leads to increase evaporation and thus heat loss. You need to be more careful in summers with your cat. You’ll probably notice that your cat grooms herself more after strenuous exercise, when she needs to release body heat. To compensate for the loss of body fluids, cats need to drink more water under these conditions. If water is not available, a thirsty cat will try to conserve water by grooming less. In hot weather, a dehydrated cat can easily overheat.

Self grooming – a natural instinct in cats
Grooming between cats is an important activity in the formation of social bonds. The most basic bond is that between queen and kitten, which begins as soon as the mother starts licking the birth fluids off her kitten. Although much of the grooming a queen gives her kittens is necessary for hygiene it stimulates excretion and removes the wastes, as well as keeping the kittens’ coats clean, which helps stimulates the kittens’ nervous systems and speeds up development.

Kittens begin learning how to groom themselves by the age of three weeks. By the time they reach six weeks of age, kittens are proficient in grooming themselves and their siblings. Self-grooming is a highly favourable behaviour. Cats show individual differences not only in the frequency of grooming but also in the time spent during each grooming session and the sequence followed.

Is your kitty tongue tied?
If your cat stops grooming herself, the first place to look for problems is the tongue. Because almost all tongue disorders are painful, a cat with such a problem may be reluctant to eat or groom, leading to quick deterioration of its condition. Special nursing care is necessary to see the cat through the problem because of the importance the tongue plays in their life.

Because the tongue is out of sight unless it is busy with one of its many tasks, it is easily taken for granted. Most pet parents are quick to notice unexpected or unusual behaviour in their cats. If this continues it is wise to consult your veterinarian to make sure that there has been no damage to the tongue.
(Joan E Henderson is a retired international cat judge based in Melbourne, Australia)