We are used to paying attention to our dog's ears, eyes and tail when we try to interpret what our dogs may be feeling, but did you know that a dog's tongue can also play a role in communication? A dog's tongue covers many important functions and we often take this muscled organ for granted. Dog tongues aren't there just for decoration. There are many fascinating functions our dog's tongues have that are just ready to be discovered. Following are six fascinating ways dogs use their tongues coming straight from a dog's mouth.
Home of The Taste Buds
Ever wondered why I spit out that bitter pill you offer me giving you a hard time administering my medication? Chances are, my taste buds informed me that it's not something I may want to eat.
You see, just like you, a dog's tongue is covered with these small bumps known as papillae. Each papillae contains several clusters of taste buds and each taste bud is equipped with taste receptor cells.
These receptor cells transmit messages to a special area in our brain that's dedicated to allowing me to detect odors or tastes so that I can evaluate them.
I am known to be capable of discerning between salt, sweet, bitter and sour. Mother Nature has given me this gift, so that I could avoid eating things that could be potentially harmful.
" Sensations of pleasure and disgust provided by taste serve a survival function. A reasonable rule of thumb, at least for natural substances, is that bad tastes are a signal that the animal has encountered something that is harmful, indigestible, or poisonous, while good tastes signal useful, digestible substances." ~ Stanley Coren
A Dog's Radiator
On top of allowing me to perceive taste, my tongue also allows me to cool off especially on those dog days of summer. Unlike humans, who cool off by sweating, us dogs stick out our tongues and start panting.
No, my tongue doesn't sweat, instead, it's kept moist courtesy of four pairs of salivary glands which release saliva in the mouth. You see, when I'm hot, my tongue acts like a thermostat, and those quick, shallow, breaths allow air to flow over my tongue causing saliva and moisture to evaporate.
Through the evaporation of water from my tongue, mouth and upper respiratory tract, I am able to effectively cool down.
Panting in dogs is not only seen when it's hot or after exercising, sometimes us dogs may pant with our tongues sticking out also when we're stressed. So a panting dog isn't always a happy dog.
How can you tell if I am panting from stress? You will have to look at context and rely on other subtle signs such as facial tension, furrowed brows, a tense, spatula-shaped tongue (tongue curved at the edges), whale eyes and prominence of muscles and veins on the face among other signs.
Did you know? According to veterinarian Marty Becker, when a dog pants he takes about 300 to 400 breaths per minute, which is whole lot compared to the normal 30 to 40 breaths per minute.
Lapping Up Water
When you drink water, you just gulp it down with your tongue staying nicely put inside your mouth. That's because you have a nice set of full cheeks that allow you to suction. When us dogs must drink, we must stick out our tongues instead.
The way we drink water may seem sloppy to you as you wipe away those random splashes by the water bowl, but turns out, it took a group of researchers at Virginia Tech and Purdue University to figure out exactly what we're doing.
You see, as we're drinking, we plunge our tongue in the water and then the underside of our tongues curls up to bring up a ladle of water into our mouths. We then quickly bite down to capture that water and on goes the lap, gulp and repeat cycle. Researchers say that us dogs are very fast in accelerating our tongue upward and we do so more quickly than cats.
"The everyday experience of dogs as messy drinkers results from the backward curl of the tongue, which increases the size of the water column and thus enables dogs to drink more per lap than with a straight tongue." ~Gart, Sean, et al.
My Cleaning Device
Humans are blessed with hands that come with opposable thumbs, while us dogs are left with nothing more than our mouths and paws to carry out several tasks. Count your blessings for this. According to veterinarian Patty Khuly, a practicing veterinarian based in Miami, Florida, if humans lacked opposable thumbs and weren't able to reach out for disinfectants to clean up their wounds, they would possibly lick their wounds just like dogs do!
Whether we're grooming our puppies, removing debris from our fur or licking a wound, our tongues are our cleaning devices.
We're not aware of it, but our saliva contains beneficial compounds capable of destroying the cell walls of gram-positive bacteria. So our instinctive wound licking behavior can help promote healing, diminish our pain and at the same time, inhibit bacterial growth!
However, as with many things in life, too much of a good thing is bad. I may get carried away into licking too much and the repeated abrasive action of my tongue along with the negative implication of keeping a wound moist for too long (moisture attracts bacteria), may lead to trouble. This is when your vet may recommend I wear that cone of shame.
"Pets can get obsessed with licking to the detriment of healthy skin. There’s also a lot of bad bacteria in a pet's mouth, so as with so many good things in life, licking is an activity best done in moderation."Patty Khuly
Tongue Flicks Speak Volumes
You're likely familiar with snakes flicking their tongues, but dogs can flick tongues too. When you see me doing this, you might want to pay attention to what is happening. Patricia McConnell in her book " For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend" explains that in dogs these little tongue flicks are an expression of low level anxiety or an appeasement signal.
You may see tongue flicks happening anytime I feel uncomfortable such as when I am at the vet's office, when you're trimming my nails or when I am being hugged or in a place surrounded by strange dogs. Don't ignore these subtle pleads of help, take notice and try to find ways to make me more comfortable in certain situations. Ignore them, and my anxiety may escalate.
Not all tongue flicks stem from anxiety though, a dog who is engaging in a full body wag, and comes towards you with the head lowered and tongue flicking, may just be soliciting attention.
"If a dog stands still, tongue-flicks out of a closed jaw, and then stiffly turns his head away from you, mind your manners. You are being told loud and clear that Fido is uncomfortable. (. . .) Ignore this message at your own peril." ~Patricia McConnell
A Greeting Tool
You're likely quite familiar with the enthusiastic licks I give upon greeting you in the evening when you come home from work. You like to call them "doggy kisses." Well, from our doggy perspective, things are a tad bit different from what you may imagine. We don't really "kiss" as people do and people who kiss dogs are often at risk of being bitten.
You see, us dogs use our tongues from a very young age. Mother dog licks us from the day we are born. After we make it out the birth canal, mother dog licks us vigorously to help stimulate our breathing and then she'll keep licking us to stimulate us to eliminate as we can't do that on our own when we're very young.
As we grow up, you'll see us lick around our mother's mouth. This behavior is likely reminiscent of the old days when we were in the wild and we licked our mother's mouths to elicit her to regurgitate for us when we were in the process of being weaned. You see, back then, mother dog couldn't bring a whole carcass to our den to feed us, so she would regurgitate to feed us. Today we have the luxury of breeders serving us puppy mush before being started on kibble, but back then, things were just that way.
So when we greet you by licking your face, we might not necessarily be asking you to regurgitate (although we loves those cookie crumbs on the corners of your mouth!), but if our tails are wagging and we look happy, chances are you can take it as a sign of friendliness or a sincere compliment coming from "the tip of our tongues."
Dogs like to lick our faces, a behavior that is disturbing for many dog owners and particularly non-dog owners. Yet, this behavior is a demonstration of friendliness, an attempt at pacifying us and themselves, a hand (though not literally) reaching for peace. It’s a compliment a dog gives you, “I like you, you can be my friend.” ~Roger Abrantes
Did you know? Some dogs have black in their mouths and this can mean black spots on their tongues or even blue/black tongues. Here's an interesting read on the tongue of the Chow chow: the chow' chow's fascinating tongue.
- For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D Ballantine Books; 1 Reprint edition (July 22, 2009)
- American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics. "Fluid dynamics explain what happens when dogs drink water." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 November 2014.
- Gart, Sean, et al. "Dogs lap using acceleration-driven open pumping."Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.52 (2015): 15798-15802.
- Psychology Today, How Good Is Your Dog's Sense of Taste?, by Stanley Coren, retrieved from the Wed on March 4th, 2016.
- Ethology Institute Institute Cambridge, Why Do Dogs Like to Lick Our Faces?, by Roger Abrantes, retrieved from the Web on March 4th, 2016.