Your cat's prickly tongue performs many duties, from bathing and combing her coat to wound cleaning and protection. In many cases her wound heals successfully and without infection, but the tongue itself isn't what performed the feat. The true antiseptic inside your cat's mouth is her saliva.
Kiss the Boo-Boo
When you get a paper cut, chances are your first reaction is to stick your finger in your mouth. Your cat has the same urge after an injury, except she must lick the wound instead. This is a two-fold benefit, as the tiny barbs on her tongue remove any foreign matter that may have gotten into the boo-boo, and her saliva flushes out the wound and clean it up.
Keep It Clean
Because putting a Band-Aid on a cat wound is simply not feasible, or advisable, your cat must take it upon herself to keep the injury clean as it heals. She'll lick and lick and lick to ensure no nasty viruses or bacteria move in before it closes, and licking also encourages blood flow to speed healing. Her saliva contains various compounds to keep germs and infection at bay, including lysozyme, lactoferrin and nitric oxide. These prevent bacterial growth, and opiorphin relieves pain. Basically there's a medicine cabinet in your cat's mouth that's designed to aid and speed healing.
The sandpapery finish of her tongue makes it an effective scrub brush, comb and washcloth, but that prickly papillae can also do some damage if she were to get a little too carried away with the licking. Some cats go overboard as they tend to wounds, often licking themselves raw and turning an otherwise minor injury into a larger lesion. Licking is a stress-relieving behavior, and the pain relief qualities of her saliva could prevent her from feeling the additional injury she's inflicting upon herself.
So how do you know when your cat has gone from keeping her wound clean into obsessive-compulsive licking behavior? Watch how long and often she licks. An occasional cleaning is normal, while a constant lick, lick, lick accompanied by thinning or missing patches of fur around the wound is not. You can try covering the wound with a gauze wrap, but the most effective method is the use of the Elizabethan collar, also known as the lampshade or Cone of Shame. Depending on the strength of the urge and the stubbornness level of your cat, you may need to keep her coned until the wound heals completely.
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