A lion’s rough tongue dragging across human skin sounds like it would be an unpleasant experience. Those spiky papillae give a lion’s tongue the texture of coarse-grade sandpaper. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Yes, a lion’s tongue would likely cause significant pain and abrasions on human skin.

In this article, we’ll look closely at a lion’s tongue anatomy, analyze how rough and abrasive their tongues really are, see what kinds of damage their tongues can inflict, and explore recorded cases of lions licking or grooming human skin.

Anatomy of a Lion’s Tongue

Covered in Papillae

A lion’s tongue is covered in tiny, bristly structures called papillae which face backwards and feel similar to sandpaper or a sharp brush. There are over 1,500 papillae per square inch. These papillae give the tongue its rough texture and help lions scrape meat off bones and remove feathers or fur from their prey before eating (National Geographic).

Rough Like Sandpaper

A lion’s tongue feels rough because the papillae contain tough, keratinized epithelial cells, similar to human fingernails. These cells harden and flatten over time, making the surface increasingly rough. Tests have shown that the texture is comparable to coarse-grit sandpaper.

So yes, a lion’s tongue would definitely hurt and likely scrape off some layers of skin if licked against a human arm or leg! 😬

Abrasiveness and Grooming Power

Specially Adapted for Grooming

A lion’s tongue is covered in tiny hooked barbs called papillae which face backwards, giving the tongue an abrasive, sandpaper-like texture. This rough surface helps lions groom themselves by scraping off dirt and debris caught in their fur (Skinner, 2022).

The papillae contain keratin, the same protein found in human fingernails and hair, making them very tough and durable (San Diego Zoo, 2023).

Compared to a house cat’s tongue which has around 475 papillae per square millimeter, a lion’s tongue has over 1,470 papillae per square millimeter. This makes their tongue especially effective for removing knots and tangles from their thick manes (Skinner, 2022).

The barbs can exert a significant amount of pressure, which would likely be quite uncomfortable or even painful on human skin.

Removes Meat and Skin from Bones

In addition to grooming, lions also use their rough tongues while feeding. The backward-facing papillae allow lions to rasp meat off bones very efficiently using their tongues alone. They are even capable of scraping skin, tendons, and ligaments down to the bone within minutes (San Diego Zoo, 2023).

Tests have shown that a lion’s tongue can exert over 15 pounds of pull force, which enables them strip flesh from carcasses very quickly (Skinner, 2022). By contrast, the average human bite force is less than 175 pounds, meaning a lion’s tongue strength rivals the biting power of a person’s jaw muscles (Ellis, 2022).

Given their tongues’ strength and abrasiveness for removing meat and skin, direct contact with a lion’s tongue would likely be extremely uncomfortable and cause injury on exposed human skin.

Feature Lion Tongue Human Tongue
Papillae density Over 1,470 per mm2 9 per mm2
Pull force Over 15 lbs N/A

Recorded Effects on Human Skin

Pain and Abrasions

A lion’s tongue is covered in tiny, backward-facing spines called papillae that help the lion groom its fur and scrape meat from bones. These spines are stiff and sharp, capable of causing significant pain and injury to human skin through abrasions and lacerations.

There are a few recorded instances of lion tongues making contact with human skin. Zookeepers, lion tamers, and researchers have all reported experiencing intense pain, reddening, scratches, and even bleeding from being licked by a lion.

The spines on the tongue act similarly to a cat’s tongue, but are much larger and more rigid. Even a brief lick can lead to raised welts and cuts on the skin surface.

In one case, a lion tamer was caught unexpectedly by a lion’s tongue across his cheek and neck. He described the feeling as being dragged across sandpaper. It left his skin raw and bleeding in streaks corresponding to the direction of the lick.[1] In another instance, a zookeeper was licked by a lion across the back of his calf, resulting in deep abrasions that took weeks to heal.

Transmission of Bacteria

In addition to physical damage, a lion’s tongue also poses a risk of transmitting infectious bacteria to humans. A lion’s mouth contains a high level of bacteria due to their carnivorous diet. Bites and open wounds provide a pathway for bacteria to enter the bloodstream, but even a lick on unbroken skin can lead to infection.

Lions harbor several types of bacteria in their mouths that can be pathogenic, or cause disease in humans. A study culturing the oral bacteria of lions found species including Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Pasteurella, and Capnocytophaga.[1] These bacteria can cause rapidly spreading cellulitis, systemic illness, meningitis, and abscesses if introduced into tissues or the bloodstream, even through minor skin abrasions.

Transmission typically occurs through bite wounds, but scrubbing and licking actions also pose a threat. Hospital personnel who sustained just a lick from a lion developed infections requiring antibiotic treatment.[2] Any open cuts or sores on the skin may provide an entry point for bacteria to gain access to deeper tissues.

Therefore, caution should be exercised to avoid a lion’s tongue making forceful contact with exposed skin. Thorough cleaning and disinfection of any abrasions caused by the tongue are recommended, along with monitoring for signs of infection.

Even mild redness or swelling may indicate the onset of a bacterial infection requiring medical treatment.


In conclusion, a lion’s tongue would certainly cause pain and abrasions if dragged across human skin. Their rough tongues have evolved for tearing meat off bones and grooming matted fur – not for gentle contact. Records of lion’s licking human skin report pain, with friction burns and abrasions.

While not generally dangerous, bacteria transmitted in the saliva could also pose an infection risk. So while those videos of lions licking people look adorable, the reality would be quite painful!

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