What Makes a Tiger’s Tongue Unique

Siberian tiger with its tongue out
Thorsten Spoerlein/Shutterstock.com

Written by Brandi Allred

Published: October 6, 2022

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Many of us have had the experience of being licked by a cat; it’s different than being licked by a dog. Dogs have smooth tongues that, despite the slobber, don’t scratch our skin. Cats, on the other hand, have sandpapery tongues. But it’s not just the common housecat that has this unique tongue: it’s all cats, big cats included. All big cats, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, cougars, panthers, and tigers, have supremely rough tongues.

Here, we’ll discover just what makes a tiger’s tongue unique. First, we’ll learn a little more about tigers, and why they need such rough tongues. Then, we’ll explore tiger conservation, and what you can do to help save these incredible creatures.

Tiger Background

tiger running in snow

Tigers are always the apex predators in their ecosystems and definitely one of the deadliest cats.

Tigers are the largest members of the big cat family. There are two main types of tigers: the Sunda island tiger, and the continental tiger. Continental tigers include Siberian (Amur) tigers, Caspian tigers, South China tigers, Indochinese tigers, Bengal tigers, and Malayan tigers. Sunda island tigers include Javan tigers, Bali tigers, and Sumatran tigers.

Of the nine subspecies of tiger, three of them â€” the Javan, Bali, and Caspian tigers â€” have gone extinct in the past 100 years. Several more, like the Malayan and Sumatran tiger, are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and poaching.

Where Do Tigers Live?

Today, tigers can be found in the Indian subcontinent, Asia, and Southeast Asia. Siberian tigers live in the Russian Far East, and Sumatran tigers â€” the last remaining Sunda island tigers â€” live only on the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia. There are no wild tigers in North America, Central America, South America, Africa, Australia, Europe, or Antarctica.

What Do Tigers Eat?

Tigers, like all cats, are obligate carnivores. But what does this have to do with what makes a tiger’s tongue unique? Well, what we eat has a surprising amount to do with what our tongues look and feel like. Because tigers eat meat, and nothing else, their tongues are specially adapted to help them devour animals. Tigers are known to eat up to 70 pounds of meat in one sitting! Let’s find out how their teeth and tongues help them get all that protein down.

Tiger Teeth and Tongues

tiger with mouth open

A tiger’s teeth and mouth are built to take in large amounts of meat quickly.

To start learning about what makes a tiger’s tongue unique, let’s take a look at the mouth as a whole.

Tigers have 30 teeth to go along with their 7.8-inch-long tongue. Their teeth are what allow them to grab and kill prey, as well as tear off chunks of meat to swallow. For a tiger, the process of eating is something like a race; they want to eat as much food as possible, as quickly as possible, before another predator comes along. This means that many parts of the tiger’s mouth â€” tongue included â€” evolved to help them eat rapidly.

One of the things that makes a tiger’s tongue unique is a structure called a papilla. Papillae are small projections on the top of the tongue that can be either rounded or spiky. To some, the papillae make it look like tigers have furry tongues. In fact, this furry appearance is what gives a tiger’s tongue its sandpaper-like qualities.

Why Do Tigers Have Rough Tongues?

Papillae are small projections on the top of the tongue that can be either rounded or spiky.

But why would a tiger need a rough tongue? The answer has to do with rasping meat and fur from a carcass. When a tiger licks a dead animal, it can actually remove fur and meat straight from the hide or bone using its tongue. This may aid in digestion, as well as help them to get every calorie they possibly can from the kill.

One more reason tigers have such unique tongues is simple: grooming. Tigers don’t have loofahs or pumice stones to help them shed dead skin like we do. Instead, they use their raspy tongues to keep themselves clean.

Would It Hurt if a Tiger Licked You?

If you’re wondering what makes a tiger’s tongue unique, then you’re probably also wondering what it would feel like if a tiger licked you. To say nothing of the circumstances under which this would happen, the answer is probably yes. Tigers have extremely rough tongues â€” remember, they can lick meat straight off the bone. So, chances are good that one lick might just feel scratchy, but more than that, and you might have a real injury on your hands (or skin).

Tigers: In Danger of Extinction

Mother tiger and tiger cub.

Tigers are in danger of extinction all throughout the world.

Today, tigers around the world face extinction. They survive in just 5% of their historic range, with likely more tigers existing in captivity than in the wild. There are thought to be fewer than 5,000 tigers remaining in the world. Their biggest threats are habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and loss of prey species. One easy way to stand up for tigers is to never purchase anything reputed to come from a tiger, like a tooth, bone, fur, or organ. 

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About the Author

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She holds degrees in English and Anthropology, and spends her free time writing horror, scifi, and fantasy stories.

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