HEALTH & CARE

What are Cats Whiskers For: Why Trimming Your Pet’s Whiskers is a Bad Idea

cat whiskers
Stella Noble
Written by Stella Noble

Wouldn’t you agree that whiskers add extra character to a cat’s facial expression? However, if you’ve ever wondered what are cats whiskers for, they’re actually not just for aesthetics. Cat whiskers perform a variety of functions, and your cat just wouldn’t be the same without them.

Knowing what those cute whiskers are for will help you understand why your cat values her whiskers so much. In fact, you can think of cat whiskers as the reason why cats often exhibit supernatural-like powers. And it will help you understand why trimming a cat’s whiskers is a bad idea.

In this article, we’ll first give you a short overview of the anatomy of cat whiskers. Then we’ll delve into the various ways your cat uses her whiskers. We’ll also discuss whisker stress in cats and why you should never trim cat whiskers.

Cat Whisker Anatomy

white cat whiskers

Vibrissae is the technical term for cat’s whiskers. There’s a big difference between human hair and vibrissae. Or even cat whiskers and regular cat hair, for that matter.

#1: Thickness, Length, and Shape

Cat whiskers are thicker because they contain proprioceptors which you can think of as touch receptors.

Also, if you measure your pet’s whiskers from the tip on one side to the tip on the other side, you’ll find that the total length corresponds to the width of your pet’s body. And there’s a special reason for that which we’ll tell you more about later on.

The current Guinness world record for the longest cat whiskers is 7.5 inches. The record holder is a Maine Coon named Missi.

Not all cat whiskers are straight. The LaPerm, Devon Rex, and Cornish Rex are all known to have curly whiskers. If your cat normally doesn’t have curly whiskers, but some of them got curly, it might be due to damage or stress. It’s a little bit uncomfortable for your pet, but the whisker will regrow and get straightened.

#2: Nerve Endings

cat's whiskers up

Cat whiskers are also called tactile hairs because they contain nerve endings that amplify a cat’s tactile sense. Each strand is connected to your pet’s nervous system while the tip contains proprioceptors which let your cat know about an object’s direction and distance.

Moreover, cat vibrissae are securely connected to your cat’s nervous and muscular systems. Anytime your cat senses something with her whiskers, the information is immediately sent to your pet’s sensory nerves.

Thus, all the information about your pet’s immediate surroundings is processed right away by her brain. Your pet’s whiskers basically give her a heightened sense of what’s going on around her. It’s like your pet has her own radar system.

Your cat’s whiskers are also connected to your pet’s muscles. This means that your cat can move her whiskers as if they’re extra hands. And your pet can move the top rows of her whiskers independently of the bottom rows.

#3: The Number of Whiskers A Cat Has

The usual number of mystacial whiskers found on each side of your pet’s muzzle is twelve. Some cats have more than just twelve, though.

When we say cat whiskers, you probably think only of the prominent mystacial hair on your cat’s face. But cats actually have whiskers on other parts of their body, too. You’ll find shorter whiskers above each of your pet’s eyes.

Cats also have whiskers on the back of their front legs as well as on their jawline. Those found on the back of their forelegs actually help them when they are climbing and are also used for hunting.

Cat Whiskers – What Are They For?

tabby cat's whiskers

You can think of cat whiskers as additional sensory and communications tools. Here are some of the most important functions of cat whiskers.

#1: The Fifth Sense

The area surrounding the roots of each whisker strand is full of nerves and generously supplied with blood. Because of this, your cat’s whiskers are extremely sensitive.

In fact, they’re so sensitive that they can even detect changes in the air currents or the direction of a breeze. This is one reason why your cat may develop whisker stress if her whiskers constantly brush against the surface of her food bowl.

#2: Fitting into a Tight Space

Have you ever wondered how your cat knows whether she will fit into a tight space or not? Cats are able to figure that out right away through their whiskers.

Since cat whiskers are as wide as their bodies, the whiskers help your cat gauge whether she’ll fit in that tight space or not. If she feels that her whiskers are being pressed tight against her face, then she’ll know she won’t fit in the space.

Before entering a tight space, your cat will do a whisker check. She will first test the space with her head pushed forward. If she finds that her head fits and her whiskers are not touching the sides, then she’ll know that she can fit in there.

#3: Positioning the Prey

Cat whiskers enable your pet to hunt effectively. Outdoor cats are usually far-sighted, and anything that’s too close to their eyes can seem blurry, so they rely on their whiskers.

Your pet’s whiskers tell her about vibrations in the air, which is important for when your cat is chasing her prey.

When your pet is hunting, she will most likely point her whiskers forward. Yes, she can move those whiskers if she wants to. By having her whiskers sticking forward, your cat can sense what’s happening in front of her. She’ll also be able to tell vibrations in the air caused by a running prey.

Whiskers help your cat tell whether her prey is properly positioned so that she can give it the fatal bite. The whiskers found on the back of your cat’s front legs are the ones that primarily help them position their prey. But the whiskers on your pet’s chin as well as those on the side of her chin also help.

#4: Emotional Barometer

The way your cat’s whiskers are positioned can tell you a lot about your cat’s mood. When your cat is feeling calm, her whiskers will look relaxed and will be sticking out sideways.

When your pet is resting and feeling content, like when she has just finished her meal, her whiskers will be immobile. However, if your pet’s whiskers are pushed forward, it means that your pet is really alert and excited.

When all her whiskers are pointing forward, it can be a sign telling you that your pet is in hunting mode and that she’s wearing her game face. Watch out for when her whiskers are flattened against her cheeks. It means that your pet is either angry or scared.

#5: Accurate Navigation

If you’ve ever wondered how cats can tell their way around even when it’s completely dark, they rely on their whiskers as much as their eyes.

Sure, cats can see well in the dark, but as we’ve explained above, they can be near-sighted or far-sighted depending on whether they live indoors or outdoors, so they need help navigating. When you’re in the dark, you feel your way around with your hands. Cats do this using their whiskers.

The proprioceptors found in cat whiskers are actually related to the position of the cat’s limbs and body. This means that thanks to her whiskers, your cat knows exactly where every part of her body is. This then allows your pet to be able to make split-second decisions especially with regards to her next immediate movement.

Just try watching your pet leap from one spot to another in the blink of an eye. The way your cat knows exactly where to put her paw next or how to balance herself is all thanks to her extraordinary whiskers. And yes, cat whiskers also enable your pet to visually measure the distance of an object.

See Also: How Do Cats Always Land On Their Feet

#6: Feedback Mechanism

The whiskers provide cats with feedback about their environment so that they can respond appropriately.

For instance, when something brushes against the whiskers above your cat’s eyes, it will trigger a blinking response. As your cat blinks, her eyes are protected from whatever it is that brushed against her whiskers.

How to Care For Your Cat’s Whiskers

cat's whiskers

Yes, there is such a thing as whisker stress. Every time your cat’s whiskers come into contact with objects like the surface of a narrow food bowl, it causes whisker stress. Trimming your cat’s whiskers is also not a good idea, and below we will tell you why:

#1: Preventing Whisker Stress

While cats can actually control the sensory focus of their whiskers, their whiskers respond to their autonomic nervous system most of the time. In short, the whiskers respond to stimuli from the environment even without conscious control by your pet.

Hence, if there are a lot of things going on around your pet’s environment, it can cause information overload on her whiskers. Moreover, each time your pet comes into contact with an object, sensory messages are immediately transmitted from the proprioceptors to her brain.

Your cat senses each movement around her, whether it’s vibrations in the air, changes in the air current, or if even a feather brushes against her cheeks. All of these sensations are received by the proprioceptors in her whiskers and transmitted to her brain.

This barrage of information can stress out your pet, causing whisker stress or whisker fatigue. As mentioned earlier, even when your cat is simply feeding, if her whiskers constantly touch the side of her food or water bowl, it can also cause whisker stress.

If you see your pet pacing in front of her food bowl but is hesitant to eat, it could be that your pet doesn’t want her whiskers to touch the side of her food bowl again because it’s too uncomfortable for her.

Some cats, instead of pacing in front of the food bowl, paw at the bowl until the food spills on the floor. Then that’s when they’ll start eating. This kind of behavior shows that your cat knows eating from the bowl can cause her pain or discomfort. This could also be a sign of whisker stress.

Other signs of whisker stress include leaving food in the bowl even when she’s still obviously hungry. Your pet may also make a mess around the bowl while she’s feeding. Or, your pet may approach her food or water bowl with caution, as if she’s anxious about being hurt if she goes near it.

If you see your cat doing this, you may want to consider replacing her food bowl with a flat plate. For her water bowl, you may want to replace it with something wider. Even if your cat is not showing any signs of whisker stress, it would still be a good idea to replace her bowls, if only to prevent whisker stress.

Another way to prevent whisker stress is by providing your pet with a cat water fountain. Many cats prefer drinking from a flowing source instead of from a bowl.

See Also: DIY Cat Water Fountain

#2: Why Your Pet’s Whiskers Should Never Be Trimmed

Without her whiskers, your cat would never be able to accomplish all the acrobatic feats that you admire her for. Whiskers give cats vital information about their environment, and that’s just one reason why you shouldn’t cut your pet’s whiskers.

When you trim your pet’s whiskers, she can become dizzy and disoriented. That’s because without her whiskers, she’s deprived of all the important navigation signals she needs. If you can imagine what it would be like to navigate your environment while you’re blindfolded, that’s what it’s like for your pet if you trim her whiskers.

#3: Know When Not To Be Concerned

If you see your pet shedding a whisker or two, that’s normal. Cat whiskers do shed, but they also grow back. Your pet’s whiskers can also change color. As your pet grows old, her whiskers will also go gray. By the way, a Bombay cat’s whiskers are all black, just like the color of their fur.

If you see that your pet’s whiskers have gone curly, don’t try to straighten it. It’s natural for their whiskers to become curly every once in a while. As the whisker grows, it will start to straighten by itself.

If you’ve got a Devon Rex, her whiskers will be naturally curly. That’s just what it’s like for that breed, or for the Cornish Rex and LaPerm. Even if you’re tempted to straighten their whiskers to give them a neat look, try to refrain from doing so as it will be very uncomfortable for your pet.

Wrap Up

cat with long whiskers

Cat whiskers may look cute, but they’re actually extremely functional. Do you have any fun stories about your cat’s whiskers? Please feel free to share your comments and suggestions with us. To better understand the mechanics that make up your cute furry friend, check out our next article on how do cats sweat.

About the author
Stella Noble
Stella Noble

Stella Noble lives in Warren, Michigan with her family and three cats. She is a Certified Cat Trainer and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

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