Although this may be old news to cat owners, new research reveals the feline tongue’s microstructures are uniquely suited to pull out snags and tangles in a cat’s coat. While the tongue’s texture is also helpful to the cat while eating and drinking, it is first and foremost a grooming tool.
“When the cat’s tongue hits a snag, it pulls on the hooks, which rotate to penetrate the snag even further,” explained Alexis Noel, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. “Like a heat-seeking missile for snags, the hook’s mobility allows the cat to better tease tangles apart.”
However, the hook-like nobs on a cat’s tongue aren’t at all like the stiff rods on a typical hairbrush. When not in use, the flexible hooks are flattened atop each other like a roof’s shingles and point in a single direction. This mobility seems to allow the tangled hair that accumulates to be easily swiped away.
“This configuration provides openings in a single direction, enabling the mat of hair around the bristles to be removed with a single finger swipe,” Noel explained. “These openings face the cat’s throat and [are] also why cats swallow their hair and end up with hairballs.”
Noel and her colleagues built a large 3D cat tongue model — 400 percent larger than the real thing — to test the functionality of the hair-grabbing hooks. In tests, researchers found the model cat tongue effectively untangled fur samples and was surprisingly easy to clean.
Scientists believe similar microstructures could be used in the cosmetic industry and healthcare fields, and for that reason, Noel and her colleagues recently filed a patent to develop cat tongue mimic technology. “The flexibility of cats’ tongue spines may have broad-reaching applications from an easy-to-clean hairbrush to wound cleaning within the medical field,” said Noel. — Catnip staff