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Why do cats have whiskers?

Why do cats have whiskers?

 

tabby cat with long whiskers

Whiskers don’t look like much. They’re adorable, for sure, and we can’t imagine our cats’ faces without them, but they don’t seem very important.

 

And yet, whiskers are at the very core of what it means to be a cat. Whiskers are a kind of cat superpower, and so much of what we admire about our cats comes down to their whiskers.

 

What are whiskers?

 

Whiskers are keratin filaments. That means they are hairs, made of the same material that our own nails and hair are made of.

 

Whiskers are special hairs, though. They are thicker and coarser than normal hairs - at least two or three times as thick[1] - and they stand away from a cat’s body.

 

close up of cats whiskers and tongue

Whiskers emerge from follicles like any other hair, but whisker follicles are different. They are packed with blood vessels and nerves. Whiskers are deeply embedded, with roots that go three times deeper than ordinary fur.[2]

 

When we think of whiskers, we tend to think of the ones on the “whisker pad” on a cat’s face, that plump little cushion between the nose and mouth. These are called “mystacial whiskers.” But cats also have whiskers on their chins (called mandibular whiskers), above their eyes (superciliary), and on the backs of their forelegs (carpal).

 

 

A Cat's Whiskers 

Most cats have exactly 12 whiskers on each side of their face, arranged in four rows of three whisker hairs on each cheek.[3] But some breeds have more. Regardless of the count, every cat has an even number of whiskers, and they’re always symmetrical, with the same number on each side of the body.

 

How do whiskers work?

 

There are sensory organs at the base of each whisker called proprioceptors. Proprioceptors send messages about the cat’s world to his brain.

 

cat lying on its back, whiskers showing

Whiskers, also called “tactile hair” – the word tactile refers to the sense of touch – have been compared to our fingertips, but, unlike our fingertips, the whiskers themselves don't have any sensation in them, anymore than ordinary hair does. It’s the movement of the whisker that the proprioceptors pick up.

 

When an air current passes over a whisker, or if the whisker brushes up against something, the vibration of the whisker alerts the sensory nerves at a whisker’s base. This explains the third name for whisker:  vibrissae, which comes from the Latin word vibrio, which means “to vibrate.”[4]

 

A cat’s long whiskers are called “macrovibrissae.” They’ve got little muscle slings at their bases that allow a cat to move them independently and voluntarily. Cats use them for sweeping or “whisking” around an area. The shorter whiskers are called “microvibrissae.” A cat can’t move these, but will use them for object recognition.[5]

 

Why are whiskers important to cats?

 

It could be said that a cat touches the world with his face.

 

Whiskers are like antennae on insects. They don’t replace vision, but they provide more sensory input about a cat’s world.

 

Whiskers help cats “see” objects they can’t see

 

close up of cat's face with whiskers
Whiskers can detect changes in air currents which provide information about the size, shape, and the speed of nearby objects and animals. Whiskers will alert a cat to a vole scurrying past, and can help a cat distinguish it from the dragonfly that flew by a moment ago.
 
Whiskers can help cats “see” things that are right under their noses. Cats have excellent distance vision, but have trouble focusing on things that are right in front of them. Air that’s stirred up around an object will bounce off the object and send information back to a whisker.
 
This video shows how a cat manipulates her whiskers to help her catch a toy that is so close to her face that she probably can’t see it. Skip ahead to 2:14 to see the whiskers in action:
 
 
 

Whiskers help cats navigate in the dark

 
Whiskers can help a cat navigate around furniture in a darkened room or locate his litter box and water dish at night. Even blind cats can move around rooms surprisingly well as their whiskers can help them get a sense of the lay of the land.[6]
 

Whiskers help cats judge distance and width

 
Whiskers send messages to the brain regarding the position of the body and limbs. They are part of the reason why falling cats tend to land on their feet.
 
cat jumping from one kitchen counter to another
Whiskers can help a cat judge distance – like before they jump from the nightstand to the dresser, and decide if they can fit in that narrow space behind the sofa. Most cats’ whiskers are the approximate width of their bodies, including their fur. It’s like they were born with a measuring tape! (Note that if a cat becomes overweight, the whiskers don’t grow to compensate and thus become less useful.[7])
 

Whiskers help protect cats’ delicate eyes

 

The superciliary whiskers, the ones on the eyebrow, help protect a cat’s eyes. If a bit of dust falls on a superciliary whisker, a cat will blink or shake his head, diverting the dust from the eye. If a blade of grass touches that whisker, a cat will know to turn or back away before the blade enters his delicate eye.
 

Whiskers help cats hunt, climb, and walk

 
gray cat climbing a tree
The carpal whiskers, the ones at the ankles, seem to serve multiple purposes. A cat who has caught a prey animal beneath her paws can use her carpal whiskers to determine whether the animal is still moving. Carpal whiskers can help a cat climb a tree, and there’s growing evidence that carpal whiskers may help adjust the stiffness of the leg depending on the texture or evenness of the ground a cat is walking on.[8]

 

Whiskers are so important that 40% of the sensory area in a cat’s brain is devoted to the parts of the body that contains whiskers. In fact, each individual whisker can be traced to a specific place in the brain.[9]

 

Whiskers can tell us something about what a cat is feeling

 

Here’s where whiskers are helpful to us cat guardians.

 

A cat may wear his emotions on his whiskers. Learn to read your cat’s whiskers and you may have a little insight into his mind. This helpful grid can help you interpret the meaning behind the position of your cat’s whiskers.

graphic that shows what whisker position means 

What is “Whisker Fatigue” all about?

(Note: as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.) 

 

Whisker fatigue is still a controversial condition, but the idea behind it is that the super-sensitive organs at the base of the whiskers just get irritated from too much stimulation. They’re not so much “fatigued” as just stressed out from constantly brushing up against things.

 

gray cat taking food out of bowl

Cats who may suffer from whisker fatigue may go out of their way to avoid having their whiskers touch things, such as the sides of their water or food bowls. This can lead to a range of behaviors, such as not drinking enough water, which is very dangerous for cats. Read more about why some cats won’t drink out of their water bowl and why insufficient water intake is so worrisome.

 

Cats who don’t eat directly from their food bowl, but instead scoop or drag it out of the bowl to eat on the floor may do so for a number of reasons, including whisker fatigue. This blog post, “Why does my cat take food out of his bowl to eat?” covers this topic and what to do about it.

 

If you think your cat may suffer from whisker fatigue, you can purchase a specially designed “whisker-safe” cat food bowl, like this one from Dr. Catsby, and a cat water fountain, like these models by Veken, or MOSPRO

 

Do cats like it when you touch their whiskers?

 

All cats are individuals and what one cat enjoys another cat may detest. But as a general rule, cat whiskers are highly sensitive, and most cats would probably prefer you left their whiskers alone.

 

If you do touch a cat’s whiskers, do so VERY gently, and go with the “grain.” And be respectful! If there is any indication that your cat is not enjoying this kind of contact, stop.

 

You can learn more about the right way to pet a cat here.

 

Can you cut off a cat’s whiskers?

 

cat with whiskers

While the whiskers themselves have no feeling in them, and cutting them would cause no more pain than cutting your own hair, you should NEVER, EVER, EVER cut a cat’s whiskers.

 

In fact, you should not curl them, or dye them, or modify them in any way.

 

Your cat requires her whiskers to help her get along in the world. She needs her whiskers the way you need your fingertips or your eyes.

 

A cat with missing or damaged whiskers may feel disoriented or confused. He no longer has the system he's relied on his entire life to help him navigate the world. Cutting whiskers increases the chance your cat will injure himself.

 

Help! I just found a cat whisker!

 

If you find a whisker on the floor, don’t panic.

 

cat with prominent whiskers on a blue background

Like other hairs, whiskers go through the normal growth, dormancy, and shedding phases that all hair goes through. It will grow back.

 

Finding a lost whisker or two around the house is normal, but if you notice a sudden spurt of lost whiskers, your cat could be suffering from allergies, stress, infection, or trauma. Check with your vet.

 

A couple of fun cat-whisker facts

 

cornish rex cat with short, curly whiskers

Cat breeds sport a variety of whisker types. The Maine Coon sports long, luxurious whiskers, as long as 6 inches on each side, while the whiskers of a Cornish Rex cat are typically extremely short and curly.

 

(For more information about the Maine Coon Cat, read, "What is a Maine Coon Cat?")

 

According to the Guinness book of World Records, the longest cat whiskers in the world belong to Fullmoon’s Miss American Pie (“Missi”). They were measured at 7.5 inches in 2005, and can be viewed in all their glory here: Fullmoon’s Miss American Pie.

 

Love Pinterest? Here's a Pinterest-friendly pin for your boards!

Why do cat's have whiskers Pinterest friendly pin 

 

 

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FOOTNOTES

 

[1] Breyer, Melissa. “10 Things You Didn't Know About Cat Whiskers.” Treehugger, 28 Jan. 2021, www.treehugger.com/things-you-didnt-know-about-cat-whiskers-4864051.

 

[2] Buzhardt, Lynn. “Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?” VCA Hospitals, vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/why-do-cats-have-whiskers.

 

[3] Buzhardt

 

[4] Buzhardt

 

[5] “Why Don't Humans Have Whiskers?” Office for Science and Society, 11 Dec. 2020, www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-history/whiskers-humans.

 

[6] Redfearn, Suz. “Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?” WebMD, WebMD, 18 Mar. 2014, pets.webmd.com/cats/features/why-cats-whiskers.

 

[7] Peter Hanlon, University of Melbourne. “Why a Cat's Whiskers Are the Bee's Knees.” Pursuit, The University of Melbourne, 8 Feb. 2021, pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/why-a-cat-s-whiskers-are-the-bee-s-knees.

 

[8] Helbig T., Voges D., Niederschuh S., Schmidt M., Witte H. (2014) Characterizing the Substrate Contact of Carpal Vibrissae of Rats during Locomotion. In: Duff A., Lepora N.F., Mura A., Prescott T.J., Verschure P.F.M.J. (eds) Biomimetic and Biohybrid Systems. Living Machines 2014. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 8608. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-09435-9_42

 

[9] Buzhardt

 

[10] “Longest Cat Whiskers.” Guinness World Records, www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/longest-cat-whiskers.

 

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