A-z - Animals

What Makes a Tiger's Tongue Unique

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Many of us have had the experience of being licked by a cat; it's not the same as being licked by a dog. A dog's tongue is smooth, and despite drooling, it won't scratch our skin. A cat's tongue, on the other hand, is like sandpaper. But it's not just the average house cat that has this distinctive tongue: all cats, including big cats. All big cats, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, cougars, panthers, and tigers, have extremely rough tongues.

Here, we'll discover what makes a tiger's tongue unique. First, we'll learn 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 the snow
Tigers have always been the top predators in their ecosystems and definitely one of the deadliest cat species.


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. The continental tigers include the Siberian (Amur) tiger, the Caspian tiger, the South China tiger, the Indochinese tiger, the Bengal tiger and the Malayan tiger. Sunda tigers include the Javan, Bali and Sumatran tigers.

Of the nine subspecies of tigers, three of them — the Javan, Bali and Caspian tigers — have become extinct within the past 100 years. Others, such as the Malayan and Sumatran tigers, are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and poaching.

Where does the tiger live?

Today, tigers can be found in the Indian subcontinent, Asia and Southeast Asia. The Siberian tiger lives in the Russian Far East, while the Sumatran tiger – the last remaining Sunda Island tiger – lives only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. 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 the uniqueness of tiger tongues? Well, what we eat has an amazing relationship with how our tongue looks and feels. Because tigers only eat meat, their tongues are specially adapted to help them devour animals. Tigers have been known to eat up to 70 pounds of meat in one sitting! Let's see how their teeth and tongue help them digest all that protein.

Tiger teeth and tongue

tiger with open mouth
A tiger's teeth and mouth are built to suck in large amounts of meat quickly.

©iStock.com/dito: Aleksejs Loginovs

To understand what makes a tiger's tongue unique, let's look at the entire mouth.

Tigers have 30 teeth and a 7.8-inch long tongue. Their teeth enable them to grab and kill prey, as well as tear off large chunks of meat to swallow. For tigers, the process of feeding is like a race; they want to eat as much food as possible as quickly as possible before another predator shows up. This means that many parts of the tiger's mouth — including the tongue — have evolved to help them eat quickly.

One of the unique features of a tiger tongue is a structure called a papillae. The papillae are small protrusions on the top of the tongue that can be round or pointed. To some, the papillae make it look like a tiger with a furry tongue. In fact, it's this furry exterior that gives tiger tongues their sandpaper-like properties.

Why is the tiger's tongue rough?

The papillae are small protrusions on the top of the tongue that can be round or pointed.

But why would a tiger need a rough tongue? The answer has to do with scraping the flesh and fur from the corpse. When a tiger licks a dead animal, it can actually use its tongue to remove the fur and flesh directly from the hide or bones. This may aid digestion and help them get as many calories as possible from their prey.

Another 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.

Does it hurt if a tiger licks you?

If you've wondered what makes a tiger's tongue unique, you might also want to know what it's like if a tiger licks you. Not to mention under what circumstances this might happen, the answer is probably yes. Tigers have very rough tongues – remember, they can lick meat right off the bone. So there's a good chance a lick will just leave you scratchy, but more than that, your hands (or skin) could be doing real damage.

Tigers: Endangered

Tiger mother and tiger cub.
Tigers around the world are in danger of extinction.

© iStock.com/Rajkumar Natarajan

Today, tigers around the world are facing extinction. They survive only 5 percent of their historical range, and there are probably more tigers in captivity than in the wild. It is thought that there are fewer than 5,000 tigers left in the world. Their greatest threats are habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching and loss of prey species. An easy way to support tigers is to never buy anything purportedly from a tiger, such as teeth, bones, fur or organs.


  • Why are tigers endangered?
  • Are there more tigers in Texas than in the wild?
  • 9 tiger species from around the world
  • Tiger Location: Where Do Tigers Live?

More from AZ Animals

featured image

Siberian tiger sticking out tongue
Unless the environment is unfavorable, bison can easily fend off tigers.

© Thorsten Spoerlein/Shutterstock.com

about the author

Brandi Allred

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She has degrees in English and Anthropology and writes horror, science fiction and fantasy stories in her spare time.

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  1. J-Stage Journal Platform, available here: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/ofaj/81/2.3/81_2.3_39/_pdf
  2. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, available here: https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/tiger
  3. World Wildlife Fund, available here: https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/tiger