Cat whiskers seem like an ordinary part of your cat’s face, just like our own eyebrows or eyelashes. But unlike our own hair, cat whiskers are much more than dead skin cells. Even though we painstakingly groom our hair into what we think is a stylish arrangement on our heads, it will never be as important as cat whiskers are to cats. What are whiskers for, then? We’re about to find out!
Anatomy of a Whisker
Cats have more whiskers than you’d think. According to Lana Fraley Rich, the Catsultant and well-known cat behaviorist, they have up to 24 longer whiskers on their muzzle and shorter ones right above their eyes. And that’s not all. Cat whiskers are also hiding on our furry friends’ chins and even on the back of their front legs just above the paws. The scientific name for these stiff hairs is “vibrissa” (singular) or “vibrissae” (plural), just in case it comes up in trivia. Lana adds that they are extremely sensitive and twice as thick and coarser than coat hair.
Undercover Radar Detectors
One answer to the question, “Why do cats have whiskers” is simple: they’re tiny radar detectors. “Whiskers are set three times deeper than [a cat’s] fur and have blood vessels that make them very receptive to movement. When air moves over the whiskers, they vibrate, which stimulates the nerves,” explains Lana. Acting as fine-tuned sensors, cat whiskers are invaluable for a number of feline activities.
More Than Meets the Whisker
One of the ways that cat whiskers function like radars is while stalking prey or evading predators. This seemingly innocent, cute facial stubble secretly turn them into stealth, ferocious hunters. “When a cat approaches something in his path, the air is stirred up as he moves. When the air hits the wall or another animal, it bounces back, and then the air is detected by the cat’s very sensitive whiskers,” says the Catsultant. It’s like a sixth sense. Cat whiskers not only help them catch the object they’re after, but also alert them to approaching predators by detecting changes in the air.
Ever wonder how cats seem to know where they’re going, even when it’s pitch black? In addition to playing the role of radar, cat whiskers also act as beacons that guide them at night. Lana explains, “Their whiskers are almost as important to them as our eyesight and sense of touch is to us. Indoor and outdoor cats get valuable information about their daytime and nighttime activities from their whiskers.” They help kitties navigate in the dark by sensing subtle changes in air flow and currents. That’s why, unlike us, these creatures are adept at finding their way at night. Cat whiskers keep them from stumbling around, knocking things over and walking right into the furniture.
Whiskers, Whiskers, Everywhere
Remember the whiskers above the eye? These functional kitty “eyelashes” have yet another role as antennas. When your cat’s whiskers brush up against something, or when he walks underneath a table or chair, these little feelers “trigger a protective blink, when necessary, to protect them from getting poked in the eyes,” says the Catsultant. They even help out when your cats on the hunt, adds Lana, by acting as another set of eyes when he’s focused on something else, like prey.
Managing Whisker Stress
Have you ever noticed that cat food bowls tend to be flat and wide? There’s actually a reason for this. Because cat whiskers are so incredibly sensitive, they can experience whisker stress pretty easily. If your kitty fishes his kibble out of his bowl to eat it, you might want to look into a shallow dish to ease his whisker worries. Van Ness Ecoware Non-Skid Cat Dish is a good option, with a playful illustration and an ideal shape that’s whisker-friendly. Or try the super slim Petstages Easy Meal Cat Dish that’s easy to clean and dishwasher-safe. The Van Ness Dinner Mat is a solution for cats that can’t stand the slightest bend of the whisker. It’s a heavy-duty non-skid mat with a raised rim that keeps the food contained.
Look, But Don’t Touch
Cat whiskers are pretty amazing, and as we’ve learned, they have so many jobs to do. This is why you should never intentionally cut a cat’s whiskers, and when you are grooming, pay close attention to make sure you don’t clip a whisker. “Without their whiskers,” notes Lana, “cats can become very stressed, scared and sometimes disoriented. They can start acting dizzy and/or confused because they aren’t receiving their navigation signals—their radar system is ‘down’ until their whiskers get close to being fully grown back.” It can take 2 or 3 months for cat whiskers to grow back, so make sure you let them grow naturally. Resist the urge to touch or play with them; it’s kind of like someone tickling you if you hate tickling—overstimulation.
Fun Facts about Cat Whiskers
Much more than the kitty version of sideburns or eyebrows, cat whiskers can actually be an indicator of your favorite feline’s mood. The Catsultant explains that a calm kitty has whiskers that stick out sideways from her face. Cats that are angry or frightened might have her whiskers flat against her cheeks. If your furball is feeling frisky or is on alert, they might push them forward. This information can prove to be pretty useful to cat parents. Another cool fact is that even though most cat whiskers are white, those that are black to begin with can turn white as your kitty ages. And because they span the width of a cat’s body, they function as measuring tools to help cats determine if they can fit into a small space.
Now that you’re whisker-wise, you can appreciate your cat’s whiskers as a thing of beauty and pride for your feline companion. They play a much bigger role than mere facial embellishments, helping out with everything from hunting to navigating in the dark. So, show some cat whisker love with a dish that will make your kitty comfy and happy, and remember to admire them from afar!
Nikki Naser, Pet Central Senior Editor
Instead of owning 30 cats, Nikki has an impressive collection of 30 cat-themed T-shirts, and just 4 pets—a ginger-haired senior cat, a senior Maine Coon, a middle-aged Choodle, and a young kitty who showed up one day on the back steps. A former Orlando resident, Nikki worked on several tourism publications before moving to South Beach. When she’s not stopping to take pics of community cats to post on Instagram, Nikki spends her time with the office pets at Chewy, writing for their Pet Central blog.