We are used to seeing dogs panting with their slobbery tongues hanging out their mouths. But cats tend to keep their tongues firmly inside apart from when they are self-grooming. Therefore, seeing your cat sticking its tongue out can be a strange sight.
This often leaves owners asking questions. Why does my cat stick his tongue out? Is there something wrong with him? Or is this unusual habit just a unique quirk? There are many reasons why you might see your furry friend sticking his tongue out. These range from genetics to mild illnesses, or can even indicate severe conditions such as cancer or kidney disease.
In this article, I run through 14 possible reasons why your cat sticks his tongue out. Have a read and see which you think applies – it is important to understand this behavior so if something is wrong with your cat you can get them the help they need.
14 Reasons For a Cat Sticking Tongue Out
Although it isn’t common to see a cat with its tongue hanging out, there are several reasons for this behavior. Some are entirely harmless and are nothing to worry about whatsoever. For example, your cat might be extremely relaxed and let its mouth hang open. In these cases, you can giggle at the silly sight of your cat and enjoy their unique quirks.
On the other hand, it can indicate illness if accompanied by other symptoms. Your cat might have a respiratory infection or feel nauseous. There are also serious medical conditions that can cause your cat to stick its tongue out, including kidney disease, neuromuscular disorders, and oral cancers.
1. Relaxed or Sleeping
Is your cat sleeping with its tongue out? This is one of the most common scenarios cat owners report seeing their cats’ tongues sticking out. If this is the case, you don’t need to panic at all. Your cat is just extremely relaxed, which includes relaxation of the muscles that usually hold the jaw closed. Therefore, the mouth falls open and the tongue pokes out.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise as humans also do this when they fall asleep. Have you ever woken up and realized your mouth is hanging open? Perhaps you’re even dribbling on your pillow! This is exactly what is happening to sleeping cats – if you spot your cat drooling but acting normal when sleeping, they’re just totally relaxed and out of it.
Your cat doesn’t have to be fast asleep to stick its tongue out either. Is your cat drooling when purring and sticking its tongue out? I often find this happens when I stroke my kitty, and it’s always a welcome sign. It simply proves your cat loves their cuddles and feels totally comfortable around you. How cute!
2. Something Stuck on His Tongue
Cats have specialized tongues covered in small hooks called papillae. These hold an important function in self-grooming. Cats use their rough tongues to remove all dirt, debris, and loose hair from their coats to keep themselves clean. The hooks easily grip onto any debris and remove it with one simple lick, then swallow the debris.
Unfortunately, hair and debris can sometimes get stuck to the papillae and don’t come off when your cat swallows. When this happens, you might see your cat coughing with its tongue out to try and remove whatever is stuck to it. It will also stick its tongue out in an attempt to remove the debris. Within a few attempts, your cat will usually be successful.
3. Genetic Predisposition
Look closely at the cat with its tongue hanging out. Does it have a flat face? Flat-faced cats are known as brachycephalic breeds, common examples being Persians, Himalayans, and Burmese cats. These breeds always have a short nose because of their genetics which causes their skulls to be distorted.
Because of their unusual skull shape, brachycephalic cats often have their tongues sticking out repeatedly or permanently. Their shortened faces mean that their tongues are often too big for their mouths. Therefore, the tongue hangs out rather than fitting inside as usual.
This is nothing to worry about and rather is just a result of your cat’s genes. However, you should be aware that many flat-faced breeds suffer from brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS). This is where the genetic abnormalities partially block the airways and make breathing difficult. This condition often requires surgical intervention.
4. Nausea or Motion Sickness
If you see your cat panting in the car, it could suffer from motion sickness. Much like people, the bumps and winds in the road can make your cat feel nauseous when driving. This often leads to drooling, open-mouth breathing, and the appearance of their tongue! Once at your destination, these symptoms will stop.
Motion sickness isn’t the only cause of nausea in cats. If your cat has eaten too much or too quickly, it might feel ill. Likewise, eating something shouldn’t produce feelings of nausea. You might notice your cat drooling all of a sudden and sticking its tongue out until the feelings of sickness have passed.
Most nausea is no cause for concern and will pass on its own accord. However, you can help to prevent your cat from feeling sick in the first place. Make your cat’s portion sizes smaller and more frequent to prevent overeating. Slow feeder bowls and elevated food dishes can also be helpful. You can even purchase motion sickness medication if you know your feline gets car sick.
5. Anxiety or Stress
One of the theories behind why cats get motion sick is due to stress and anxiety. While extremely stressful for most kitties, traveling is not the only cause of stress. Cats are super sensitive creatures and don’t respond well to any changes in their environment or routine, such as:
- A new pet or baby entering the family
- Moving to a new house or neighborhood
- Changing their cat food or cat litter
- Starting a new job and being home less frequently
- Neighborhood cats infringing on their territory
- Loud noises such as fireworks or construction
- Unfamiliar guests in your home
- Changes to their usual feeding schedule
Cats can breathe through their mouth, but they usually only do this when stressed. In these cases, you’ll also see your cat sticking its tongue out and not eating. Other symptoms of stress include increased hiding behavior, changes to body posture (flat ears, dilated pupils, and a puffed-up fur coat), unexplained weight loss, and failure to use the litter tray.
All cats get stressed occasionally. Perhaps you welcomed an unfamiliar guest in your home or adopted a new pet. As your cat adjusts to the change, they will become more comfortable. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile introducing all changes gradually to limit the stress your kitty feels.
On the other hand, chronic stress is concerning. If you cannot work out why your cat is anxious or if they don’t seem to readjust to the change, speak to your vet. Your cat might have separation anxiety that is making them permanently exhibit these strange behaviors. Stress can be debilitating both physically and mentally, so you’ll want to work with your vet to find a solution.
6. Neuromuscular Diseases
A cat sticking its tongue out is a symptom of neuromuscular disease. After all, the tongue is a muscle that is controlled by the nervous system. Therefore, faults to these neuromuscular pathways can cause your cat to lose control of its tongue. Instead of being inside the mouth, it hangs out.
If your cat is suffering from a neuromuscular disorder, there will be other symptoms. Some common signs to look out for include muscle weakness and muscle wastage. This is usually most apparent in the limbs and therefore can also make movement and exercise difficult. Muscles in the throat can also be affected and cause issues with swallowing and regurgitation.
You should speak to your vet if you think your cat has a neuromuscular disease. These conditions can be caused by all kinds of things, so treatment will depend on which situation applies. Cancers or inherited neuropathy are hard to treat, but other neuromuscular conditions have positive outcomes.
7. Respiratory Tract Infection
Respiratory infections can be caused by both viruses and bacteria. They commonly affect the upper airways and make breathing difficult. Therefore, cats with respiratory infections often breathe with their mouths open and stick their tongues out.
You should easily be able to tell if your cat has an upper respiratory infection as there are many clinical signs. They are comparable to a human cold and include things such as:
- Your cat sounds congested when breathing
- Your cat breathing heavily while resting
- Your cat has blue gums or tongue
- Your cat has a runny nose and/or watery eyes
- Your cat is coughing and sneezing
Respiratory infections caused by viruses generally don’t have any cure and must be fought off alone. A common example includes feline calicivirus (FCV) which can be mild or severe. Thankfully, most life-threatening feline viruses have vaccines that dramatically help reduce the risk of contracting a serious infection. On the other hand, bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics.
You can also make a few changes at home while your cat is recovering. For example, use a humidifier for cats with asthma to moisten the air in your home. This helps loosen up any mucus and ease congestion.
Have you noticed how dogs pant more on hot days or immediately after exercise? This is because panting helps to cool dogs down. The moisture on their tongue evaporates into the air, taking heat energy with it and producing a cooling effect.
Therefore, next time you find yourself asking, “Why does my cat stick his tongue out?” take a moment to consider the weather. Is it an extremely hot day? Although cats don’t pant as dogs do, they will still stick their tongues out and breathe through their mouths if they are overheating as a last and desperate attempt to make their bodies cool down.
Heatstroke is life-threatening and you need to help your kitty cool down fast to avoid it. Make sure your cat has plenty of cold water to drink and has access to shade. Set your home thermostat to around 70 degrees which is the perfect house temperature for cats. And never leave your cat in a parked car! Even on cold days, cars can get extremely hot and your cat will overheat.
9. Periodontal Disease
Also known as gum disease, periodontal disease is caused by a bacterial infection of the mouth. It causes the gums and supporting tissue in the mouth to weaken. In turn, this causes chronic pain and results in tooth loss as the tissue becomes weaker and weaker.
As your cat’s mouth is so sore, it will often hold it open and you’ll see your cat sticking its tongue out. Other clinical signs include:
- Your cat making weird mouth movements
- Refusal to eat or a partial loss of appetite
- Only eating wet food and not hard kibble
- Foul-smelling breath due to the bacteria
- Excessive drooling from the mouth
During the early stages of the disease, vets clean away plaque and tartar from the teeth and practice good dental hygiene. Yet unfortunately, these symptoms generally show in the later stages. Therefore, by the time the condition is diagnosed, your cat might already be in the advanced stages. In these cases, surgery or tooth extraction might be required.
As such, it is worthwhile preventing periodontal disease. Take regular visits to your vet to get your cat’s teeth cleaned. You can also feed your cat dental diets or purchase products over the counter that help reduce plaque formation and protect the teeth.
Stomatitis is another dental condition that is similar to periodontal disease. However, rather than affecting the supporting structures of the teeth, cats with stomatitis have inflamed soft mouth structures. For example, it will affect the inside of the cheeks, the tongue, and the gums.
Like periodontal disease, this causes a lot of oral pain for your cat and so they often hold their mouths open. Additionally, the tongues of cats with stomatitis are often large and swollen due to inflammation. This makes it even harder for your cat to hold its tongue inside its mouth. In fact, a cat sticking its tongue out symptom is common of this disease.
Other signs include a decreased appetite, excessive drooling, and bad breath. You need to call a vet if you suspect this disease is the culprit. There is no specific treatment, but your vet will be able to provide pain medication, anti-inflammatories, and good dental care to help manage the condition.
11. Oral Tumors or Trauma
Oral tumors or trauma to the mouth could be the reason for your cat sticking its tongue out repeatedly. These growths or injuries could be anywhere within the mouth, including the gums, hard palate, or soft palate. They can cause your cat to stick its tongue out for several reasons:
- They are painful and so your cat leaves its mouth hanging open
- The tumors can grow large and be too big for the mouth
- Wounds and tumors can become infected which makes salivation worse
As tumors can be cancerous, you need to take your cat to the vet. They will be able to surgically remove the growth so your cat can shut its mouth and let you know if your cat required chemotherapy. Injuries should also be looked at by a vet as infections are common. If nothing else, your vet will be able to prescribe pain medication to help ease the symptoms while your cat recovers.
12. Kidney Failure
Kidney disease is common in cats, which often leads to kidney failure. Cats with severe kidney failure commonly develop oral ulcers on the tongue, gums, and lips. There are extremely painful for your cat and thus they often hold their mouths open and stick their tongues out.
Additionally, cats with severe kidney failure often suffer from uremia. This is a medical term used to describe the passing of blood in the urine. This might sound unrelated to the mouth, but it isn’t! Uremic cats end up with toxins in their blood which they try to eliminate through their breath. To facilitate this, cats stick their tongues out and breathe through their mouths.
If your cat does suffer from kidney disease, you will be able to spot other symptoms, including:
- General weakness and lethargy
- Excessive thirst yet dehydration
- Frequent urination
- Subtle and unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting and diarrhea (often with blood)
Unfortunately, these signs are pretty subtle during the early stages of the disease. It is only when the disease progresses and cats develop kidney failure that they become more apparent. This is what has given kidney disease the nickname “the silent killer”. Prognosis depends on which stage the disease is caught, so take your cat to the vet at the first sign of any kidney problems.
13. Smelling Something
Did you know that cats open their mouth when they smell? This is because cats have a specialized structure on the roof of their mouths called the vomeronasal organ. This is a region that is dense with sensory cells that respond to odors. It is these cells that make a cat’s sense of smell as strong as it is – they smell with the vomeronasal organ and their noses!
When cats are smelling something using this region, they open their mouths and curl their top lip backward. This enables air and the odor to travel into the mouth. The odor particles then latch onto the sensory receptors and pass a message to your cat’s brain letting them know what the smell is. Sometimes when this happens, cats also stick their tongues out.
So, if you see your cat walk up to an object, stick its tongue out, and take a deep breath, it’s probably trying to figure out what’s in front of it by using its excellent sense of smell. Cats stick their tongue out while playing to smell, too. They are quite literally exploring the space around them with their tongues and their fantastic sense of smell.
Cats are curious creatures and often get their paws on things they shouldn’t! And then they get their paws on toxic substances, cats can easily become poisoned. This results in drooling and sticking out the tongue, along with sickness, diarrhea, tremors, and even seizures.
Unfortunately, there are many toxic substances found in our homes. Some common examples include human foods such as onions, garlic, and chocolate. Cleaning products and anti-freeze are also packed with nasty toxic chemicals. Even some house plants such as peace lilies, aloe vera, cheese plants, and devil’s ivy are dangerous for cats.
The severity of symptoms will depend on how much of the toxic compound your cat eats. If they only consume a little, their bodies will be able to handle it. In fact, minor drooling and a little stomach upset could be the only symptom.
However, if a large amount is consumed, the situation can become life-threatening. Your cat’s heart rate and breathing rate will increase, and they could have seizures. Therefore, it is vital to contact a vet if you know your cat has eaten a toxic substance. They’ll be able to help flush the toxins from the body and stabilize your cat until they’ve managed to let it pass.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
So, why does my cat stick his tongue out? As you can see, there are many reasons for this behavior. In many cases, your cat is just being an adorable goofball. Perhaps your cat is extremely relaxed, smelling something deeply, or has a tongue that’s too big for its mouth!
However, a cat sticking its tongue out is a symptom of disease. As such, you should call your vet if there are any other concerning signs or behavior changes, such as a reduced appetite, increased lethargy, breathing difficulties, or changes in grooming habits. Your vet will be able to perform a physical examination and offer treatment for the underlying condition.