cat rubbing whiskers off
Questions About Cats

Why Do My Cat’s Whiskers Keep Breaking Off?

A cat’s whiskers may seem small and unimportant. To cat owners, however, broken whiskers can be a worrying sign. Thankfully, whisker loss is, more often than not, nothing to worry about.

A cat’s broken whiskers are usually due to rough play or your cat naturally shedding. This breakage does not cause physical pain, and its whiskers will grow back in no time. However, if your cat suddenly loses more whiskers than usual, it may be a sign of poor health.

Whiskers also fulfill a host of other vital functions. These functions fall mainly as a way to calculate distance and space. However, cat whiskers can provide information about your cat’s emotions as well.

Is Cat Whisker Breakage Natural?

Whiskers are an important part of your cat’s anatomy. They provide information about a cat’s surroundings, allowing them to be the stealthy, agile, and perceptive companions we love. Whiskers are made of, and function similarly, to cat fur.

For this reason, it is natural for a cat to break or lose their whiskers, but it can also be a sign of poor health.

What Are Whiskers?

Scientifically referred to as ‘vibrissa’, whiskers are an integral part of the anatomy of many mammalian animals. In most cats, there are a dozen whiskers on each side of the cheek, placed in rows of 4, with 24 whiskers in total. Other than the more prominent set on their cheeks, cats also have whiskers in the corners of their mouth, their nose, chin, eyebrows, and the back of their front legs.

While it may look small, each individual whisker is made up of tiny tactile receptors called mechanoreceptors, which are responsible for handling information about mechanical pressure. For cats, these receptors are located along their fur and whiskers, increasing their sensitivity to the world around them.

The roots of whiskers also add to their sensitivity. Whisker roots are covered in blood vessels and nerve receptors. This allows information picked up by whiskers to be sent straight to the brain, giving the cat its lightning fast reflexes.

What Are Whiskers Made Of?

Cat whiskers are made of keratin, which is also what makes up human hair and nails, as well as feathers, horns, and claws. Likewise, cat fur and cat nails are also made of keratin. For this reason, cat whiskers do not cause pain when it breaks.

Much like cutting hair, there are no pain receptors on the shaft, or the length of the whisker, and breaking whiskers causes no pain on the part of the cat. Unlike hair, however, cat whiskers contain touch receptors, and have roots that contain a large number of blood vessels and nerve receptors, making it more sensitive than any hair on the human body.

Cat Whisker Functions

Whiskers continue to be an active field of research in the scientific community. There is still a lot we don’t know about how they function, and what exactly their limits are when it comes to providing tactile information.

Every day, science continues to determine what whiskers can and cannot do. However, there are two main functions that scientists can agree on: tactile sense, and body language.

Tactile Sense

Because of their sensitivity, whiskers can give a lot of tactile information to cats. While it may seem like a small thing at first blush, tactile sensation can encompass a lot of areas in the way a cat lives its life. Here are some things that cat whiskers can do when it comes to tactile sensation.

cat whiskers keep falling out

Sense Surroundings

The main function of whiskers is to allow cats to sense their surroundings. Think about the last time you were in the dark, and you extended your hand. This is mostly how cats use their whiskers to move about in the world. Like your extended hand, cats use their whiskers to make sure they don’t bump into objects, and to feel out objects to get where they need to go.

But rather than feel out objects, whiskers pick up air currents. Sure, humans feeling about in the dark can be a loud and raucous affair. Cats, on the other hand, can keep their stealth by feeling out air instead of objects.

This ability to sense air currents is the reason why cats seem to react to things that we cannot see. Likewise, this is how blind cats can still move about the world seemingly without difficulty. They have whiskers to rely on for sight, paired with their other sensory organs, like hearing and smell.

In studies where animals were temporarily deprived of their sense of whiskers, like this study published in Science Magazine, animals were shown to have a lessened ability to sense their surroundings. These studies show that whiskers are used to locate objects, detect movement, discriminate between different textures, maintain balance, swim, and locate food, among other things.

Check Size And Dimensions

One of the popular anecdotes about cat whiskers is that cats use them to gauge the size of an opening to see if they can fit. This line of reasoning is often supported by how cat whiskers are often the same width as the cat’s body. However, there have been disputes about this fact in the scientific community.

According to an article written for the New Zealand Veterinary Association, the length of a cat’s whiskers does change with age or body condition. In other words, whiskers stay the same length if a cat’s width changes.

On the other hand, there is a good reason to believe that cats use their whiskers to determine the size of an opening. In a study written in the Journal for Neuroscience, rats have been determined to use their whiskers to determine opening sizes within 5 to 10% accuracy.

Maintain Balance

Because of the placement of their touch receptors, you may think that cats use their whiskers to balance. As a matter of fact, this seems to be a common belief among cat owners. However, cats don’t use their whiskers to balance. Their ability to balance is provided by a structure in their inner ear, much like it does in most mammals.

On the other hand, the lack of whiskers may affect balance. This is not because whiskers are used for balance, but because the lack of whiskers are disorienting to cats. As it is an important sensory organ, the lack of whiskers may have the equivalent of a lost limb. While your limbs aren’t what you use to balance yourself, the lack of them can be extremely disorienting, and may cause you to lose your balance.

Body Language

How your cat’s whiskers are positioned can also be a great way to understand how your cat is feeling. Noticing how your cat’s whiskers are positioned, along with noticing the rest of your cat’s body, can provide a valuable insight as to your cat’s emotional state. Here are the common positions that cat whiskers can take:

  • Neutral position: Whiskers that are positioned slightly to the side, relaxed, indicate a happy, contented, and relaxed cat.
  • Pulled forward, fanned out: This position is that of a cat that is interested and perked up. Its mouth will also be closed, with loose lips. This cat has just seen something that has caught its attention, whether it be a bird, an interesting sound, or the smell of food.
  • Slightly back: Whiskers pulled slightly back indicate fear, stress, and anxiety in a cat. You may notice this in your cat moments before it bolts out of the room out of fear.
  • Pulled back tightly: The ears will be pulled back as well, and the rest of the cat’s body is likely to be hunched backward, including its tail, in an effort to look larger. This position means aggression. A variation of this position is when a cat’s ears and whiskers are pointed forward.
  • Sideways to forwards: Whiskers moving sideways to forwards, along with a flattened and tense face indicates pain. Cats are known for being great at hiding pain. However, there are signs that can tell when a cat is in pain, including their facial expression.

What is Whisker Fatigue?

Also known as whisker stress, whisker fatigue happens when whiskers are stimulated too much. This often happens to cats that are fed meals in small bowls, or bowls with high sides. When eating, a cat’s whiskers may brush against the plate or bowl; because its whiskers are so sensitive, the repeated brushing can cause stress on the cat.

To solve this issue, the trick to make sure that your cat’s food bowl doesn’t brush against its whiskers. There are food bowls that are advertised to be made specifically to avoid whisker fatigue.

With that said, note that this phenomenon is recent, and mostly anecdotal. There are people who claim that changing their cat’s food bowls have solved its appetite issues. Thinking that an organ as sensitive as whiskers can be stressed due to too much stimulation also isn’t such a far logical leap.

With the lack of formal scientific studies, your vet may not be completely on board with it being the reason for suddenly diminished appetites in cats. What vets can agree on, however, is that a lack of appetite often hints at a serious health issue and requires a deep investigation. But if your cat’s appetite problems go away with a new food bowl, then you probably don’t have much to worry about.

What Causes Broken Cat Whiskers?

While trimming whiskers are bad for cats, the whiskers break off on their own naturally, all the time. More often than not, there is no need to worry about broken or shed whiskers. However, there are some cases where broken whiskers should be a sign for concern.

Playing Rough

The most common reason why your cat loses whiskers is through breaking. This often happens due to paying rough. This is most common in cats that are young and full of energy. You may notice more broken whiskers in cats that are more active, compared to cats that are less likely to engage in rough and tumble play.

You may notice an uptick in lost whiskers in young cats, specifically in cats about 11 weeks old. This is the age when kittens are most likely to shed their first whiskers. Additionally, young cats will also play rougher and explore their surroundings more often, leading to more broken whiskers. As long as your cat isn’t exhibiting any other symptoms of poor health, like a lack of appetite, sluggishness, aggressiveness, and avoidance, then your kitten is perfectly healthy.

Natural Shedding

You may notice whiskers along the fur that your cat sheds. Cat whiskers are made of the same thing that makes up their fur, cats will shed their whiskers fairly often.

Next to roughhousing, shedding is the most common reason why cats lose their whiskers and are the reason why fairly sedentary cats still lose their whiskers. Like rough play, shedding is a normal cause of lost whiskers. It should not be a cause for concern unless your cat suddenly sheds more whiskers than usual.

Stress

Stress can be one of the most common reasons for abnormal breakage in cats and can cause multiple whisker loss in a short amount of time. While already bad on its own, the loss of whiskers can cause even more stress on your cat, as it becomes disoriented and lacks an important tactile sense.

Stress is often just the symptom of the problem, as well. It is often caused by other reasons, like poor diet or sickness. On the other hand, stress can also be related to something other than your cat’s health, like a noisy environment, an addition to the household, or losing someone in the household.

If you believe that your environment isn’t to blame for your cat’s stress, it may be best to have them checked by your vet. Otherwise, the stress can be caused by something that is out of your control. If your cat doesn’t get better, contacting your vet or a behaviorist may be a good idea.

Physical Injury And Trauma

A sudden loss in whiskers can also be due to physical injury and trauma, specifically to the areas where the whiskers are located. For example, a blow to the cheek can cause the whiskers of that cheek to fall off, as the hair follicles located in that area repair themselves from damage. To avoid this, make sure to remove any chances of fights with other cats, housemates, and always keep an eye on your cat when letting it outside.

Cats have the ability to heal themselves from physical injury. Whiskers should regrow after the injury has healed. However, if you are worried about any possible infections, contact your vet for medication.

Infections

Other than physical injury, infections can also cause sudden whisker loss. Skin infection is a common culprit and will require a trip to the vet for diagnosis and medication. One of the most common skin infections is ringworm, which is a type of fungal infection, despite the name.

cat whiskers have split ends

Old Age

In senior cats, old age is often the reason for the sudden loss of multiple whiskers. Owners should always keep a close eye on cats of older age. This includes their diet, energy levels, and any physical symptoms of poor health, like whisker loss.

In old age, the body loses its ability to repair tissue, causing illness and eventual death. The loss of whiskers can be a telltale sign that your elderly cat is suffering from poor health. If your senior cat is suddenly losing their whiskers, look for other symptoms of illness, and contact your vet.

Can You Trim Whiskers?

As cats break their whiskers all the time, is it okay if a cat’s whiskers get trimmed? Since they don’t contain pain receptors, cat whiskers aren’t painful when they are broken, or clipped. However, that doesn’t mean clipping them wouldn’t cause any ill effects.

Increases Chances of Injury

The sudden lack of whiskers can be disorienting for many cats. Remember, cats use their whiskers to feel their way around objects and move through the world. Removing their whiskers can be understandably confusing to their sense of touch. In this way, it can lead to accidents, and increase the chances of physical injury and trauma.

Causes a Change in Behavior

Because of disorientation, a loss of whiskers can also cause a change in behavior for many cats. When whiskers are lost, cats can become avoidant, and would rather hide to lessen their feelings of disorientation. Cats may also feel insecure, as they are less confident to move about.

Increases Stress

Feelings of disorientation can also cause stress to a cat. Any physical injury or trauma can also increase the chances of stress for cats. This can also start a vicious cycle, as stress can lead to the further loss of whiskers. In addition, while the lack of whiskers does not immediately lead to poor health for a cat, stress definitely can cause a cat’s health to decline.

Trimmed or Lost Whiskers

While waiting for your cat’s whiskers to grow back, there are things you can do to minimize its discomfort and chances of injury. These steps are also helpful for cats that have lost a lot of whiskers for whatever reason, be it stress or illness:

  • Keep a close eye on your cat. Make sure that your cats don’t get in environments that can be harmful to them. If your cats spend time outdoors, make sure to keep a close eye on them as well. And of course, ensure that they don’t get into any fights, especially now that they are less capable of defending themselves.
  • Minimize harmful environments. A disoriented cat is more likely to get into accidents and injure themselves. While waiting for its whiskers to grow back, minimize the chances of injury by removing any objects that your cat can get stuck in, as well as sharp and tall objects in areas your cat frequents.
  • Watch your cat’s behavior. Make sure that your cat isn’t stressed to the point that stress is affecting its health.

How to Prevent Whisker Breakage?

Is there a way to prevent your cat from breaking its whiskers? Cats will naturally replace their whiskers, whether through shedding or through breaking. Cats also tend to play rough, and healthy cats love to explore their surroundings.

However, there are things you can do to lessen the chances of unnecessary breakage. To do this, make sure that your surroundings are comfortable for your pet. Make sure that there aren’t spaces where it would be hard for a cat to get out of, as well as sharp objects. Objects that can harm your cat’s skin, like ventilators, toxic chemicals, and rat traps should also be kept away from a cat’s reach.