Tongue Tech

Can cats help us create the PURRR-fect hairbrush?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Our feline friends are some of nature’s most fastidious groomers. Tool of choice? Their tongues! What makes them such good cleaning tools?

Alexis Noel and David Hu from Georgia Institute of Technology were CURIOUS. 

They looked at tongues from six different cat species, from household cats to wild tigers. Cat tongues have backwards-facing spines, called papillae. Three-dimensional tongue scans revealed these streamlined, flexible spines are actually HOLLOW. 

Using food coloring and slow-motion video, scientists found papillae hold small amounts of saliva inside. Though only a few millimeters long, they deliver saliva to a cat’s hair roots. This enables a DEEP clean. Evaporation of this saliva also helps cats cool off! 

Inspired by nature, the researchers created a hairbrush modeled after the cat tongue. Resistance from hair was cut in half when using this “tongue brush”. AND it was easier to clean!

I’ll take one! Just no hairballs, please! 


Noel, A. C., & Hu, D. L. (2018). Cats use hollow papillae to wick saliva into fur. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(49), 12377–12382.