Why Do Lions Lick Their Prey? [4 Reasons Explained]

Photo: Piotr Poznan / Shutterstock

Lions can be observed licking their young, themselves, and each other. So, it can be confusing as to why lions lick their prey too. 

Lions lick their prey with powerful and abrasive tongues, primarily to clean and remove hair, skin, and debris, gaining access to the meat. Licking and saliva break down the meat, releasing it from the bones for consumption. Licking also benefits the lion if it is missing teeth. Some lions have been observed licking live animals, possibly due to practice killing, calming down the prey, or as a strategy to call in a parent for a larger kill.

Let’s explore in greater detail why lions lick and how the anatomy of their mouths helps them to be successful in capturing and consuming prey.

Why Lions Lick

Lions, a member of the Felidae family, have nimble, low-slung bodies, long tails, and sharp teeth and claws. Other members of the Felidae family include the cheetah, leopard, lynx, tiger, puma, panther, and domestic cats.

These carnivorous mammals are agile and powerful, moving in coordinated movements when balancing, running, leaping, and catching prey. 

Lions lick for a variety of reasons that benefit their survival.  

These include the following:

  • To clean amniotic fluids off of birthed cubs, removing odor to protect them from other predators
  • To stimulate birthed cubs’ breathing and digestion
  • For grooming and hygiene
  • To form social bonds and hierarchies
  • To aid in the consumption of prey
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Lion Mouth Anatomy

Lions have long canine teeth set in large jaws that can open up to 11-inches wide. Lions do not chew food, yet use their strong mouths and teeth to grasp and kill. 

They may also suffocate prey by clamping down or over a prey’s throat or nose and mouth with its own mouth.

Small incisors located in the front of the mouth grip, while sharp carnassial teeth tear meat into chunks before swallowing.

All members of the cat family, including lions, have a tongue that is covered in small, raised, scoop-shaped, protrusions made from keratin, called papillae. Keratin is a protein that also makes up hair and fingernails in humans. 

These papillae are backward-facing on a lion’s tongue, resulting in a spiny and rough surface. 

The abrasiveness of the tongue can pull the hair right off a bone, thorns, dander, and debris out of fur, and tenderize flesh. If a lion were to lick your skin, with applied pressure, it will remove the skin from your hand.

The papillae also benefit the lion in other ways.  They assist the lion in drinking large amounts of water. The papillae will transfer saliva to the fur, helping to cool the animal down. 

4 Main Reasons Why Lions Lick Prey

These carnivorous animals eat a lot of meat, preying on animals such as buffalo, zebra, antelope, warthog, and giraffe. Lions will also eat the young children of elephants and rhinoceroses. 

A large part of their diet comes from scavenging instead of live prey, especially in times of scarcity. Lions will often fight off other animals, such as hyenas and cheetahs, to get to the carcass.

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Lions will lie in wait behind brush or shrubs, in the night or low light, waiting until they are within about 98 feet of the prey before charging. The element of surprise gives lions an advantage in catching faster prey. 

They will hunt down animals weighing from 100 to over 600 pounds. 

Male lions generally consume 15 pounds of meat daily, and females consume about 11 pounds, totaling about 15% of their body weight for each meal. 

In scarce times, lions may only eat every 3 to 4 days, eating more at a meal to make up for the missed days. They thrive well when they can fill up in times of abundance, eating every day. 

1. Removal Of The Prey’s Outer Layer

Lions will aggressively lick their prey, using the papillae on the tongue to forcefully remove dirt, small bone fragments, hair, and skin. 

This creates a more hygienic meal for the lion.

2. Access To Meat

As the skin is removed through pressure and licking with the tongue, saliva mixes in, tenderizing the meat. This in turn aids in digestion.

Lions will eat all of the flesh of a capture for caloric intake and survival in the wild, eating every bit of meat that they can. 

Licking will also remove any bits of meat left on the bone, scraping the bones clean.

3. Missing Teeth

Lions can live 12 to 15 years in the wild, and up to 25 years in captivity. As lions age, they lose teeth. 

If a lion cannot break meat off into chunks due to missing or infected teeth, it can lick to obtain nutrition in smaller and softer pieces.

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4. Licking Live Prey: Social And Strategy

The licking of live prey has been primarily observed in the behavior of young lions, but some adults have done it as well.  

This could happen due to social innocence, as cubs practice interacting, playing with, and hunting with other creatures, not yet understanding that they need to kill it first.  

Lions may lick live prey to calm them down, reducing their struggle against them for an easier kill, and lowering their risk of injury due to the struggle.

In another case, two young lions were observed licking a live baby antelope for about 20 minutes. As they did this, the prey continued to cry out for help. Observers theorized that the lions may have been trying to use the baby to draw out the mother for a bigger kill.

In Conclusion

Lions use their jaws to catch, kill, and suffocate their prey. 

Then they lick with rough tongues covered in papillae to scrape off the skin, hair, and meat from their prey. 

Increased licking may be observed in lions with missing teeth, or when interacting with prey that is still alive. 

Live licking may be due to young cubs practicing the skill of capturing and killing, to calm the prey, or to draw in more prey for a larger food source.

Read More About Lions:

  1. Why Are Lions King Of The Jungle?
  2. Do Lions Eat Hyenas?
  3. How Strong Are Lions?
  4. Can Lions Climb Trees?
  5. Do Lions Hibernate or Migrate?

James Ball

James has had a lifelong passion for animals and nature, tracing back to his childhood where he first began fostering intimate knowledge and connection with pet frogs and snakes. He has since honed this interest into a career as a trained Wildlife Biologist, specializing in Biogeography, sustainability and conservation. In addition to his professional pursuits, James maintains an active lifestyle, regularly indulging in outdoor activities such as hiking, and musical pursuits like playing piano and swimming.

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