Whiskers are one of the most conspicuous features of a cat’s face. Even fictional felines like Tom, Puss in Boots, Hello Kitty, and the Cheshire Cat have them. Located on the cheeks, above the eyes, and under the chin, whiskers accentuate your furry friend’s adorable visage. But have you ever wondered why cats have whiskers? Are they just longer, thicker strands of hair, or do they actually serve a purpose?
The Root of the Behavior
Whiskers grow out of hair follicles just like the other hairs on your cat’s body. But unlike regular hair, they are thicker and coarser, with roots that are three times deeper. Most felines have a dozen whiskers arranged in four precise rows on each cheek. Aside from the face, your cat has whiskers on their ears and forelegs as well.
More than just physical features, whiskers are important tools that help your feline pal navigate their surroundings and go about their daily life. The follicles from which whiskers emerge are packed with nerves and blood vessels. Whenever whiskers come into contact with airflow or an object, they vibrate and give your cat information, such as about the object’s size and texture. This is why your feline companion has no problem moving around the house even when it’s dark. Essentially, they are “touching” the world with their whiskers.
In the wild, changes in air currents can alert a cat about a nearby prey or predator. And part of the reason why cats always land on their feet are the proprioceptors found at the ends of their whiskers. These sensory receptors tell your cat the position of each body part, resulting in a purrfect landing every time.
A cat’s whiskers can also help us determine how our four-legged friends are feeling. A calm and happy cat will have relaxed, droopy whiskers. Whiskers that are pulled back mean that a cat feels threatened, while whiskers that are pointing forward can indicate anger.
Encouraging the Behavior
Unlike human facial hair, cat whiskers don’t ever need to be trimmed. Whiskers provide crucial sensory information, helping your cat “see” the world and avoid potential dangers.
Because cats can’t focus on objects that are up close very well, they rely on their whiskers to keep themselves from bumping into walls and to gauge if they can pass through a narrow spot without getting stuck. The whiskers on their forelegs, which are located on the back of the paws, also give cats an idea of where a prey is if they’ve caught one.
While the actual cutting of a whisker isn’t painful, doing so can cause a cat to feel disoriented and scared. Whiskers do shed naturally though, so you might find one on the floor occasionally. There’s no need to worry if that’s the case, but never trim your cat’s whiskers on purpose.
There are, however, some situations where whiskers will need to be cut. For example, if a cat has an abscess in their cheek, the vet will need to create a smooth, clean area first before they can treat it.
Other Solutions and Considerations
It may sound odd, but cats can experience whisker fatigue, which is the overstimulation of the whiskers. When the whiskers are constantly brushing up against objects such as food and water bowls, the sensory messages being sent to the brain can be too much, causing the cat to become stressed.
A cat with whisker fatigue may refuse to eat or drink from their usual bowls, paw at food and try to pull it out of the bowl, make a big mess around the bowl during mealtimes, and meow and pace in front of their bowls.
Furtunately, the solution to whisker fatigue is simple: replace your cat’s bowls with wide and shallow ones so that their whiskers don’t touch the sides while eating or drinking. You can get whisker-friendly bowls that have been designed especially for this purpose, or use regular plates. However, if the symptoms continue even after making the switch, you will want to bring your furry friend to the vet.