Cat anatomy: the barbed tongue

I recently found myself sorting through a folder that contained a few dozen pictures of my cats in various poses, the sole consistent element being that they were sticking their tongues out at me. How this came to be started with this image:

Lucca closes her eyes as she licks her paw, showing off dozens of her tongue barbs (filiform papillae). I love cats cleaning themselves! (Marc C. Perkins)

I was sitting in my living room watching Lucca clean herself, as cats do, and I took a few pictures of her, as I do. But when I processed the images and saw her tongue in this one, I was entranced. I’d always known that cats have barbed tongues, but knowing something and seeing it are two different things. I then set about to get a few good images of cat tongues, and the above-mentioned folder of dozens of tongue-sticking-out images resulted.1

When cats clean themselves, their tongues are typically out for far too short of a time to see the barbs in any detail with the naked eye (at least not with my eyesight). And the tip of the tongue, which is the most likely part of their tongue a human will see, actually has no long barbs, as Kira kindly demonstrates in this picture:

Kira, a brown tabby, licking Lucca, a blue patched tabby and white. Only the tip of Kira's tongue is out, showing how the tip of a cat's tongue is lacking in the large barbs (filiform papillae). However, a few small ones can be seen on the tongue near her mouth. (Marc C. Perkins)

Getting tongue pictures showing the barbs was not trivial2, but for those of you looking for closeups of cats naturally licking, here are three closeups showing a front, three-quarters, and side angle:

A closeup of a cat's tongue from straight-on as the cat licks a sheepskin rug. Numerous barbs (spines; filiform papillae) are clearly visible across the width of the tongue. The papillae are largest in the middle of the tongue, and get progressive smaller towards the edges of the tongue. See the cropped version of this image for more detail on the tongue. (Marc C. Perkins)

A closeup of a cat's tongue from a three-quarters angle as the cat licks a sheepskin rug. Numerous barbs (spines; filiform papillae) are clearly visible across the width of the tongue. The papillae are largest in the middle of the tongue, and get progressive smaller towards the edges of the tongue. The three-quarters angle allows the viewer to better see the height of the barbs. See the cropped version of this image for more detail on the tongue. (Marc C. Perkins)

A closeup of a cat's tongue from a side view as the cat licks her paw (with a single claw and pads visible). Numerous barbs (spines; filiform papillae) are clearly visible across the top surface of the tongue. this side view emphasizes the height of the barbs (the largest are almost half the thickness of the tongue), and shows that they're angled back only slightly. See the cropped version of this image for more detail on the tongue. (Marc C. Perkins)

The barbs or spines are called filiform papillae. They’re opaque, hardened with keratin, and arise from widened bases that cover the tongue. The barbs are longer in the center of the tongue, and slowly get shorter towards the sides and front. These are what makes a cat’s tongue feel rough, like sandpaper, when it licks you.

The details on barbs may be a bit tough to see in those pictures, since they’re all essentially uncropped (to show context); but here’s what you really came for: closeups of the tongue focusing on the papillae3.

This is a crop of the "Cat tongue closeup: front view" image, focusing on the tongue. The original image is a closeup of a cat's tongue from straight-on as she licks a sheepskin rug. Numerous barbs (spines; filiform papillae) are clearly visible across the width of the tongue. The papillae are largest in the middle of the tongue, and get progressive smaller towards the edges of the tongue. (Marc C. Perkins)

This is a crop of the "Cat tongue closeup: 3/4 view" image, focusing on the tongue. The original image is a closeup of a cat's tongue from a three-quarters angle as the cat licks a sheepskin rug. Numerous barbs (spines; filiform papillae) are clearly visible across the width of the tongue. The papillae are largest in the middle of the tongue, and get progressive smaller towards the edges of the tongue. The three-quarters angle allows the viewer to better see the height of the barbs. See the uncropped version of this image for more context. (Marc C. Perkins)

This is a crop of the "Cat tongue closeup: side view" image, focusing on the tongue. The original image was a closeup of a cat's tongue from a side view as the cat licks her paw . Numerous barbs (spines; filiform papillae) are clearly visible across the top surface of the tongue, and additional papillae (fungiform papillae) are visible on the side and bottom of the tongue. This side view emphasizes the height at attachment of the barbs (the largest are almost half the thickness of the tongue), and shows that they're angled back only slightly. This is also one of the few images I've seen showing the back of a cat's tongue in a natural position. See the uncropped version of this image for more context. (Marc C. Perkins)

Friendly cats often groom each other, and so I absolutely have to include a picture of Lucca cleaning Kira while showing off her tongue barbs:

Lucca, a blue patched tabby and white cat, licks Kira, a brown tabby. I love it when cats curl up together on a couch and groom each other! Lucca's eyes are closed while her tongue is extended, which clearly shows the filiform papillae (spines or barbs) on the top surface of the tongue. Her nose, whiskers, fur, and closed eyes are also clearly in focus. (Marc C. Perkins)

And I can’t resist ending with a silly picture of Kira looking cross-eyed as she cleans her front paw:

Kira, a brown tabby, grooms her front paw, which is curled over super-cutely. I love this image because of Kira's wacky expression: she looks almost cross-eyed, and almost seems to be sticking her tongue out at the camera. Instead, she's just licking her front paw, which is folded back towards her face, showing you the very dense concentration of filiform papillae (barbs or spines) on her tongue. (Marc C. Perkins)

1 Try looking at 40-odd pictures of someone sticking their tongue out at you; it’s an odd experience.
2 It helps that Lucca goes through phases where she licks a sheepskin rug regularly.
3 Yes, these three tongue closeups are indeed just crops of the pictures above.  Have I mentioned how much I love my Canon 60mm macro lens, and just how insanely sharp it is?

More pictures

To see more pictures focusing on cat tongues, head to my Cat Tongue Closeups Gallery. To see more of my general cat pictures, head to my Cats Gallery or my Cat Closeups Gallery.

 

[Update: Two of these images were used to illustrate an article in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery; read more about that here.]

7 thoughts on “Cat anatomy: the barbed tongue

  1. God I wanna pull them out with tweezers.

    Not saying I would back damn I REALLY want to.

    Or just slize them till its all flat, it be such a relief.

  2. Really great shots of the cat tongues. SOOO, just wondering. I lost my old friend (15 yrs) cat last year and watched my other cat pine for him, so went off to rescue and got another one. This one they informed me had had a tough life and I believe ended up feral, but now at the rescue he was being passed over for adoption due to not being quite so cute, inc had eye surgery that left scars, etc. So its taken him a yr to get almost bonded with my other cat, but I think one of the major draw backs is he has an extraordinarily sharp tongue, he really hurts when he licks you. Any chance you know of a way to smooth those down some. I know that both of them just soo want love, and its really interferring I think in the bonding. Thanks for any help you could provide.

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