Why Do Cats Have Whiskers And What Do They Do?
As a child, my parents were always very clear that I had to leave the cat’s whiskers alone. Of course, for a kid it’s difficult to understand why such a small part on a cat’s body is so important. Many adults don’t even know! So why do cats have whiskers? And what purpose do they serve? These amazing little facial hairs are really quite fascinating for numerous reasons.
Have you ever wondered how your cat can wander around at night and not bump into things? How about why they stick their head into something then pull back and walk away? Or why the whiskers seem fuller when happy and relaxed?
Whiskers are behind all these questions and more!
How Do Whiskers Work?
To be very technical, whiskers are called “vibrissae.” This word is derived from the Latin term “vibrio,” meaning to vibrate. Whisker hair follicles have a touch sensor at each end, which sends messages back to the cat’s nervous and muscular systems. These messages help cats decipher their environments.
These work similarly to a lane departure system in a car and can message the cat to adjust to its surroundings. They are highly sensitive, and can even sense changes in airflow and vibrations. This helps cats navigate in the dark, sense when predators are coming, and find small hidey holes.
Whiskers are cleverly placed on the cat’s face and even on the backs of the front legs. Around the face, the eyebrows, cheek whiskers and chin whiskers all have these sensory abilities.
One place that is not as noticeable is around the ankle or back calf on the front legs. These are known as “carpal whiskers” and help the cat as it is climbing around or up and down. This is also one reason cats like to reach for everything. I am always careful with these during grooming as you never want to cut a whisker! This can have horrible effects on a cat and can make the dizzy, unable to walk or disoriented. In some places, this is even noted as animal cruelty (as it should be!).
Do All Cats Have Whiskers?
The simple answer is yes! Provided your cat is healthy and hasn’t undergone abuse, fights, or hardship, all cats should have whiskers. Whiskers first appear on kittens around one month old. As the cat ages, they will change color and usually become darker and longer.
Whiskers do fall out, just as our hair and eyelashes do, and they grow back. Don’t worry if you see a stray whisker on your floor! They will grow back into a perfect symmetrical balance. Some have said that whiskers grow longer as a cat grows wider, but that may not be accurate. However, this would make sense as the whiskers are the width of the cat’s body! This is an adaptation to gauge where a cat can fit without having to test it with its entire body.
What Else Do Whiskers Do?
Whiskers are also a gauge for a cat’s emotions. Flat back against the face means anger, popped out and relaxed means happy, and popped out and stiff means focused. You’ll notice a cat’s whiskers are particularly at attention when they’re hunting!
Given how precious a cat’s whiskers are, it’s important to take care of them. There is a condition called whisker fatigue or whisker stress, which can happen with overstimulation. One way I have heard to help your cat avoid this is to feed in a wide-open bowl or flat plate and make sure their favorite haunts are wide enough for them to easily enter and exit. Water should be in a wide bowl or fountain so as not let the whiskers touch the side of a bowl. At the cat spa, we do follow this recommendation as being away from home is enough stress on the cats there!
Next time you watch your cat hunt or strut through the living room, take note of the whisker placement and you might be surprised at how unique their facial hair is!