Why Is My Cat Flicking His Tongue?

Tongues are versatile and highly functional muscles. Your cat’s tongue, like yours, is very sensitive. Learning a little bit about your cat’s tongue can help you understand that curious flicking behavior.

So why is my cat flicking his tongue? Your cat may be flicking his tongue to analyze an odor he’s curious about, or he may be telling you that he’s nauseated, or his mouth is in pain.

In this article we’ll look at the role your cat’s tongue plays in the sense of smell. We’ll also discuss the symptoms of mouth pain and nausea that your cat may be trying to conceal.

Your Cat’s Tongue and Odor

No doubt you’ve felt the sandpaper quality of your cat’s tongue. It has hook shaped spines on it called papillae that are made of the same material as your fingernail. They help your cat remove odors from its fur, an essential function because cats are ambush predators.

But your cat’s tongue also interacts with odor in another way. Cats have less taste buds than humans, and it is believed that they use odor as a way of inspecting and “tasting” their food. Here’s how it works.

When your cat flicks his tongue, he inhales odors onto its surface. Then he rubs his tongue against the roof of his mouth where an organ called the Jacobson’s or vomeronasal organ is located. Ducts in this organ lead to the nose, allowing your cat to “taste” scent in a way that we humans who have a much less sensitive sense of smell cannot.

Your cat may flick his tongue anytime there is a scent that he needs to analyze, and many of those scents may have to do with pheromones. Pheromones are a kind of chemical that cats use to communicate. Many of your cat’s pheromone glands are located around the face and forehead, so when your cat rubs his head against objects (or you) he’s marking them with his scent.

Your cat’s facial glands alone contain forty different pheromones, and your cat knows what each one means. If your cat looks like he is grimacing with his mouth open and his lips pulled back, he is probably detecting pheromones and deciding what they mean. If your cat is an intact male, he may be deciding if a nearby female is in heat.

But there may be other things your cat is deciphering. Cats use pheromones to mark territory, enhance bonding between a mother and her kitten, identify other cats, calm themselves down, or communicate that they are happy, sad, or stressed out.

When your cat flicks his tongue, he is quite possibly sorting through a lot of information.

Mouth Pain

Your cat has inherited thousands of years of survival instincts. One of those instincts is your cat’s ability to conceal pain. This may sound counter intuitive to us. As relational beings we want others to share what we’re going through be it good or bad.

But cats are descendants of wild animals and have a vested interest in not appearing weak because weakness attracts the attention of predators. As a result, it can be hard to determine if something is wrong with your cat, and you often have to look for subtle signs.

When your cat flicks his tongue, he may be signaling to you that something in his mouth is causing him pain. This symptom may occur with other common symptoms related to mouth pain like drooling, decreased appetite, or swollen or bleeding gums. Your cat may also show other more general signs of pain like a hunched posture, declining to eat, or a desire to be alone.

Your cat’s mouth pain may be because of a dental problem, or because of a trauma to the mouth like a cut or a tumor. The best way to determine the source of your cat’s mouth pain is to take him to the vet. In the meantime, here are some specific things that cause mouth pain in cats. We’ll start with three of the most common dental problems.

Gingivitis

This is the result of plaque buildup which harbors bacteria and causes gums to be red, swollen, and painful. If your cat has good oral health, then the bacteria is thought to be good for your cat, and in this situation plaque resides above the line of the gums.

Plaque buildup becomes a problem when it goes beneath the gumline causing your cat’s immune system to fight back producing swollen, painful, and bleeding gums.

If it goes unchecked, gingivitis can lead to another problem called periodontitis which occurs when the untreated bacteria damages bone and gums related to the affected tooth. This painful condition can result in tooth loss. Like gingivitis, periodontitis in cats typically presents with red, swollen, and bleeding gums.

Tooth Resorption 

This is when the structure of a tooth is damaged from the inside out, causing tooth loss. The cause of this painful condition is unknown, but it is not rare. In fact, it’s the most common cause of tooth loss in cats.

If your cat is not suffering from a dental problem, then pain may be the result of some kind of trauma to the mouth. If your cat has fallen out of a tree, been hit by a blunt object or a car, or been in a fight, your cat may have received a cut or bruise in the process.

It could be as simple as falling from a bookshelf and accidentally biting the tongue with a sharp canine. If your cat allows you to open his mouth, you can check for signs of trauma to confirm this.

Tumor

Finally, your cat may have mouth pain because of a tumor. Tumors  result from the growth of abnormal cells and may be slow growing benign tumors or fast-growing malignant tumors. In cats, tumors come in different forms and the cause of tumors is difficult to determine. They may appear as small, swollen areas on the surface but grow unseen beneath the gum or mouth tissue.

Your vet will know how to diagnose your cat by suctioning a sample of cells and determining if a biopsy is necessary. Typically, if your cat has a tumor, it will require surgery to remove it.

Nausea

Nausea could be another reason your cat flicks his tongue. If this is the case, your cat may also present with other symptoms related to nausea. Here are a few to watch for:

  • vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • drooling
  • excessive swallowing
  • hunched posture

There are many causes of nausea, from the serious (cancer or kidney problems) to the mundane (morning or travel sickness). It often requires a vet visit to pin down exactly what is going on with your cat, so be prepared to give your vet of choice as much detail about your cat’s health history as you can.

Your vet may want to know when the nausea or vomiting started, how often it occurs and for how long? What has your cat’s appetite been like? Have you made any changes to your cat’s diet? Has your cat been drinking or urinating more or less?

In the past 24 to 48 hours what has your cat eaten? Has your cat eaten, or could your cat possibly have eaten a non-food substance recently?

The difficulty of treating cats (and all animals) is that they can’t speak for themselves. They rely on you for that. So, the more information you can give your vet, the easier it will be to discover what is going on.

In addition to discovering the underlying cause of your cat’s nausea, your vet will likely want to treat the symptoms as well. For example, if your cat suffers from travel sickness, your vet may give you tranquilizers or anti-nausea drugs to make your cat more comfortable on those long road trips.

Your vet may prescribe antacids to reduce stomach acid, or your vet may simply prescribe a bland diet for your cat until the nausea passes.

Conclusion

When your cat flicks his tongue, the answer may not be as simple as, well, as the flick of a tongue. Your cat’s tongue interacts with what your cat smells and is a key tool in how your cat analyzes that smell. In part, it is because of your cat’s tongue that he can understand the moods and intentions of other cats, as well as experience food in a way we cannot.

But your cat may also be signaling discomfort such as pain or nausea. There are a variety of things that can cause oral pain. Be sure to look for swelling, redness, or bleeding along your cat’s gums.

Also, see if you can spot any trauma, such as a cut, that your cat may have suffered. Finally, your cat may be nauseated. Pay attention to your cat’s eating habits, moods, and activities. These things will help you when you go to that vet visit for answers.

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