Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Close up of cat whiskers on faceLike us, cats are mammals that are covered with hair. But there are definite differences in the hair that covers our bodies! First, most humans (except those that are going bald) have thicker hair on their heads than on their arms and legs, while cats have a pretty even distribution of hair over most of their bodies. Our hair also grows longer on our heads than in other areas, while certain cat breeds, like Persians and Maine Coons, have a relatively consistent length overall. Finally, while we may have whiskers on our faces, they are nothing in comparison to kitty whiskers!

What are whiskers?

Although whiskers erupt from hair follicles like other hairs, they really stand out on a cat’s body. Whiskers are coarser and thicker than regular hair and have roots that are three times deeper. Unlike regular hairs, whiskers do not cover the entire body. They are strategically located above the eyes, on the chin, on the forelegs, near the ears, and above the upper lip. The exact pattern and location of whiskers vary with breed, but most cats have 12 whiskers that are arranged in four rows on each cheek.

Whiskers are more sensitive than regular hairs because the follicles from which they originate are jam-packed with blood vessels and nerves. In fact, whiskers are as sensitive as a human’s fingertips. So, while a human’s sense of touch is in the fingers, a cat touches the world with his face.

Whiskers are more than interesting facial features

“Whiskers are specifically tuned sensory equipment that guide a cat through daily functions.”

A cat’s face is accentuated by his whiskers. They frame the eyes, sort of like eyebrows, and emphasize the muzzle when a cat “smiles.” But whiskers are more than just facial enhancements. They serve an important function. Whiskers are specifically tuned sensory equipment that guide a cat through daily functions. These specialized hairs aid vision and help a cat navigate his environment, providing additional sensory input, much like antennae on insects.

Although whiskers are called “tactile hairs”, they do not actually feel anything in the way we feel things. They transmit information to sensory cells when they detect objects or movements. When air flows or an object brushes up against a whisker, the sensitive hair vibrates and stimulates the nerves in the hair follicle. This vibration gives whiskers their scientific name, vibrissae, from the Latin word vibrio, meaning “to vibrate.” Detecting subtle changes in air currents, cat whiskers transmit information about the size, shape, and speed of nearby objects, which helps cats navigate the world.

Whiskers are body balancers

Cats have special sensory organs called proprioceptors located at the ends of their whiskers. The proprioceptors send messages to the brain regarding the position of the body and limbs to keep the cat aware of what every part of his body is doing. This is part of how cats almost always land on their feet!

Whiskers are radar sensors

Cats are known for their great senses of smell and hearing, but feline vision is not so wonderful. Cats see better at a distance and have difficulty focusing on objects up close. Whiskers help cats “see” things that lie right under their noses, by constantly sending information to the brain. As a cat approaches something in his path, he stirs up air currents that bounce back when they hit solid objects. Whiskers detect very faint vibrations caused by these changes in air currents and act like radar detectors. In the wild, whiskers can alert a cat to the presence of prey or potential enemies. At home, whiskers help domestic cats locate their food bowls or favorite toys at night. In other words, whisker radar can help a cat hunt at night, as well as prevent him from bumping into walls in the dark.

Whiskers communicate emotions

When a cat is resting and content, the whiskers take a break. When a cat is active, so are the whiskers! A happy or curious cat will elevate his whiskers above his eyes, giving him that cute, wide-eyed appearance we love. If a kitty feels threatened, he pulls the whiskers on his muzzle taut, flairs them, and then directs them forward toward the threat.

Whiskers are protectors

These sensitive hairs respond when touched by the smallest particles. When a tiny speck of dust falls on a whisker above a cat’s eye, he will blink or shake his head to fling it off. This reaction protects his eye, which can be injured by even a tiny dust particle. When walking outside, if the whiskers on a cat’s muzzle encounter a tall blade of grass or a thorny bush, they prompt the cat to back up to avoid being scratched or poked in the eye. Whiskers save the day! Whiskers also prevent cats from getting into jams. As a kitty approaches a narrow spot in the fence, a slender space between rocks, or a small area between the living room chairs, his whiskers will help him determine if he can fit through the passage without getting stuck or turning over the furniture. This keeps the cat out of trouble in more ways than one!

Whiskers need protection

“Each individual whisker can be traced back to a specific spot in the brain…”

A good portion of the cat’s brain is devoted to processing data from touch sensors. Whiskers are reliable touch sensors and almost 40% of the brain’s sensory area aligns with the parts of the body that have whiskers. Each individual whisker can be traced back to a specific spot in the brain, which means that whiskers occupy valuable neurological real estate in the feline body.

Because whiskers are so important to a cat’s ability to safely function inside and outside, we need to protect them. When petting your kitty, touch the whiskers very gently along the grain. Do not pluck or pull on the whiskers, which will be painful for your cat. When grooming your cat, avoid cutting the whiskers, which may decrease his special awareness and cause confusion. Choose food and water dishes with a flatter design so his whiskers don’t touch the sides every time he takes a bite to eat or sip to drink. Repetitive contact with the dishes will send unnecessary messages to his brain and can be overwhelming.

Whiskers are both cute and functional - what versatility!

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