Whiskers – also called tactile hairs or vibrissae – are an extremely specialized type of sensory hair which serves many functions for many mammals. They are up to 3 times thicker than regular cat hair.
If the facial hair in men like beard and mustache are just for fashion, whiskers of cats are not just for that. Overall, they help provide cats the tools for success with their way of life.
Facts About Whiskers in Cats
So, why do cats have whiskers? The following are facts about cat whiskers you might not have heard of yet:
1. A Measurement Tool
One of the most important functions of whiskers is that they allow cast to assess the size of openings – to see if they can feasibly go in and out of them safely. Cats are famous for their ability to wedge themselves into very narrow spots and seemingly be fine with getting out and the whiskers are actually the reason they’re so successful at this.
The length of the whiskers on a cats’ muzzle very closely matches their maximum body width. They are sensory antennae which make the cat feel the wall before crashing into it.
By putting their head into an opening, they can do a “whisker check” and see if their body would be able to fit. If the whiskers are pushed against the sides of the hole, then, they know they won’t fit.
Whiskers may be adorable but you should just watch them from afar. Avoid the things that can cause pressure to your cat’s whiskers to prevent them from unusual shedding.
2. Not Just on the Face
What a lot of people may not know is that cats have additional whiskers in their bodies; not just confined to their faces. Cats, in general, have 12 whiskers on their muzzles which are called mystacial whiskers – 6 on each side. However, some cats may even have more!
Since whiskers are mostly noticed on the nose, some might think that it can only be found there. But actually, cats also have whiskers above their eyes, on their chins, and even on the back of their front legs.
What all these whiskers do is help cats assess both the space they are in and to explore any other spaces they potentially want to move into.
3. Emotional Barometer
Another surprising fact about whiskers is that they can be used as a tool to understand cats’ emotional state. Just as their tail, body, and ears are all used in some forms of body language to indicate their mood; so are their whiskers.
When cats relax, their whiskers will stick out sideways. When excited, they will push forward. And when scared or upset, they will flatten against the cheeks. These are, therefore, a pretty good way to understand what your cat is feeling at a glance.
4. Extra Sensitive
Cat whiskers are incredibly sensitive especially to changes in pressure; that’s why you should never pull them. They are unlike regular hair follicles in that they extend and are embedded deep into the nervous system.
A cat won’t only feel discomfort but dizziness and fear as well. Cat owners must take care of their cats’ whiskers by not letting anything put pressure on them.
Whiskers have sensory organs called proprioceptors on their ends which can measure the distance and direction of objects relative to them. They even help determine the surface texture of an object!
One practical application of these organs is the behavior seen by some owners wherein their cats scoop their food out of the food dish before eating it. Although there are a number of explanations for this behavior, one possibility is that the bowl itself is too narrow and is causing discomfort against their whiskers when they go down to take a bite.
According to some studies, cats that have damaged whiskers have trouble going through small openings. Some cats are lucky because theirs grow back after getting damaged.
Whiskers send even the slightest changes around cats and too much information to whiskers can cause whisker fatigue.
5. Hunting Help
Whiskers are such a big help in hunting for prey because they brush up against things that guide the cats to have efficient movements. Cats can see more clearly in the night because of it.
Whiskers not only help cats stay in tune and be acutely aware of their environment but the leg whiskers, in particular, are used to assist in hunting prey. As mentioned, cats don’t have the best close up vision so the whiskers on the forelegs help to orient the prey when they’re going in for the killing bite.
They help them position the prey correctly and also sense if their prey is alive or dead. This makes them very deadly predators as they won’t release the prey until they know it’s dead.
6. No Maintenance Needed
Owners should keep in mind that whiskers should never be cut or trimmed whatsoever. Doing so can actually disorient cats and cause them to hide or even get hurt because they can no longer navigate effectively.
Cats’ whiskers normally shed but they are usually replaced by new ones. But sometimes, loss of or shortened whiskers can mean that cats are stressed.
If you notice a sudden shedding that is more than the usual, your cat might have an underlying condition like fungal or bacterial infections, feline acne or alopecia.
Loss of whiskers might also be because of catfights as damage from scratches can lead to whisker loss. Skin irritation in cats can result in loss of hair too.
7. Climbing Assistance
A surprising fact is that the foreleg whiskers of a cat may actually help in climbing. Being ultra-responsive sensory organs means they aid in deciphering the immediate environment. As cats scale trees, they know where best to step and even where to properly jump.
Whiskers give them indications of where to best position themselves to avoid falling. This may also be the reason why cats are very adept at climbing trees, but not so good at getting down.
8. Vibration Sensors
Another credit to the amazing sensitivity of whiskers is that even minute changes in air pressure can be picked up which makes cats such formidable hunters. Cat whiskers are surrounded by muscle tissue with nerves and sensory cells that are connected to the area of their brain.
Even a tiny vibration from a mouse hundreds of feet away could theoretically be noticed because of a cat’s whiskers. This allows them to hunt in areas even where prey is obscured and also during the night.
9. Vision Aids
As mentioned before, cats are somewhat farsighted. In fact, cats can’t easily see things if they are closer than a foot in front of them.
Given this, it’s super important, especially at night, that cats can get a read on their surroundings. This is precisely what whiskers accomplish.
Through both detection of objects and air pressure which is affected by what else is in the room or the immediate area, cats can navigate around in the dark much easier than people.
10. Color Changing
Interestingly enough, whiskers will change color over time. Just like with people, as the cat ages, whiskers – along with the rest of their coat – can start to turn grey.
This is a normal part of the aging process. In fact, because whiskers are modified hairs, they retain some relation to the rest of the hairs. For example, breeds of cats with curly fur will have similarly curly whiskers!
Lastly, whiskers act as a form of eye protection. The whiskers found above a cat’s eyes function like eyelashes – keeping dust and other debris out and from causing irritation.
Whiskers also serve as cats’ glasses because they become aware if something is about to get into their eyes – causing them to blink. A blind cat can use them as well to navigate because they help the cat distinguish spaces.