Domestic cats spend up to a quarter of their waking time licking their fur to remove fleas and debris and to reduce body temperature. To groom, felines rely on tiny, keratinous spines called papillae on the surface of their tongues.
Researchers Alexis Noel and David Hu of Georgia Tech have recorded high-resolution images and video of the action of postmortem tongue tissue from six feline species, ranging from domestic cats to snow leopards. They found that the papillae’s tips are particularly well-shaped to wick saliva from the mouth and onto the fur to aid cleaning.
The pair has also created an artificial brush inspired by the structure of the papillae, which Noel and Hu suggest in their paper could be used to remove allergens from cat fur by hand or to apply medications to cat skin.
A.C. Noel, D.L. Hu, “Cats use hollow papillae to wick saliva into fur,” PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.1809544115, 2018.