A cat’s whiskers (vibrissae) are an often-misunderstood part of the feline anatomy. The whiskers have long been considered essential to a cat’s sense of balance. However, the whiskers are sensory organs that play no part in a cat’s balance and coordination on narrow surfaces.
A cat’s sense of balance stems from the inner ear. If a cat is losing balance, the vestibular apparatus sends a warning message to the brain. The cat then rights itself at once. The tail is important for providing a counterbalance. The cat’s head, legs, and torso then follow.
Although whiskers aren’t connected to feline balance, they remain a pivotal part of the cat’s anatomy. A cat’s whiskers mustn’t be trimmed as they provide invaluable sensory data to cats as they negotiate the world.
Do Cats Use Their Whiskers for Balance?
A cat’s whiskers serve many purposes, but balance is not one of them. This is a misconception born of the fact that whiskers are sensory organs. When a cat negotiates narrow terrain, it pays little attention to its whiskers.
Cats’ tails are essential for balance, so they instinctively position their tails to counter movement. For example, if the cat is leaning to the right, its tail will move to the left. Even tailless cats learn how to balance.
This is due to the vestibular apparatus in the inner ear. The vestibular apparatus is a series of fluid-packed canals located close to the cochlea. These canals are attached to nerves that send messages to the brain.
If a cat is off-balance, its head will tilt. This results in the vestibular apparatus sending a warning message to the brain. The cat immediately recognizes that it is in motion, perhaps unwittingly. This gives the cat time to rectify the situation.
This starts with redistributing weight using the tail. The head and feet will then follow. Even if the cat falls, it will twist its flexible back to land on its feet. The whiskers play no part in the balancing process.
Do Cats Lose Balance Without Whiskers?
Whiskers play no part in a cat’s ability to balance. If your cat has become clumsy, seemingly overnight, there will be another explanation. Most of the time, this will relate to your cat’s ears.
Vestibular syndrome is the most likely explanation for a cat lacking balance. The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association defines the symptoms of vestibular syndrome as:
- Tilting the head to one side
- Clumsy, uncoordinated gait
- Cat rolling over
- Rapid, erratic eye movements
Vestibular syndrome is common in cats and usually rights itself within 2-3 days. The condition arose idiopathically and will go away the same way. Just keep your cat physically safe while it is unsteady on its feet.
A wait-and-see approach is recommended. Seek assistance if your cat does not recover within 3 days. In this instance, vestibular syndrome may be a secondary concern to a more serious issue.
Ear infections will usually be bacterial or due to allergies but can occur due to excessive ear wax. If a cat’s ears are not cleaned regularly, wax can build up, becoming a breeding ground for bacteria. A feline ear infection usually begins in the outer ear, spreading inside. At this point, the cat will start to lose balance. Other symptoms include:
- Discharge from the ear
- Constant scratching at the ear
- Red, swollen skin inside the ear
- Foul smell from the ear
- Lack of response to oral stimulation
An antibacterial medication (ear drops) will clear up an infection. Prevent recurrence by cleaning your cat’s ears.
If your cat has an infection caused by wax, ear mites will usually follow as these parasites feed on wax. The symptoms of mites will be almost identical to an infection. The discharge from your cat’s ear will be brown, resembling coffee grounds. Your cat will shake its head, scratch its ears, and struggle with balance.
Keep your cat’s ears clean and administer regular parasite repellants. A remedy for fleas will normally keep your cat free of mites. Treatment will usually involve ear drops. Be sure to wash everything your cat encountered on high heat.
Polyps or Tumors in the Ear
Your cat may be living with a polyp or tumor inside the ear. These are growths that interfere with a cat’s sense of balance. The bigger the tutor or polyp, the more uncoordinated the cat will become.
Polyps are typically non-cancerous, more of a nuisance than a danger. Polyps are often visible. They start in the middle of the ear canal and grow when inflamed. Polyps can sometimes stem from respiratory infections, such as feline herpesvirus.
Although ear polyps are not cancerous, they should be treated. An ear polyp will be connected to the throat. If it grows too large, this can make eating difficult. In addition, polyps will continue to leave a cat unbalanced and impact upon hearing.
A visible ear polyp can usually be treated through manual extraction. A vet will use apparatus to grab the polyp and tug at it. Eventually, the polyp will be pulled free. There is a 50/50 chance of the polyp recurring, depending on the root cause.
Tumors are obviously more concerning. Thankfully, malignant tumors in a cat’s ear are comparatively rare. They can arise in older cats, though. The symptoms are typically identical to an ear infection.
Surgery will be required to remove a tumor. If the lump is benign, a vet may elect to simply remove part of the ear canal. This will remove all traces of the tumor before it becomes malignant. This can be achieved through laser in some cases.
In the event of a malignant tumor, a more thorough operation will be conducted. The ear canal will be opened with a scalpel and the bone divided. This is invasive but the only way to remain safe. Chemotherapy or radiotherapy will also be required if cancer has spread.
If the problem does not apply to your cat’s ear, there will be another explanation. Thorough tests will need to be run by a vet. There will be a medical concern responsible for your cat’s lack of balance. Medical conditions that lead to imbalance and lack of coordination include:
- Diabetes and hypoglycemia
- Low blood pressure (hypotension)
- Calcium deficiency (hypocalcemia)
- Potassium deficiency (hypokalemia)
These conditions are treatable, but early intervention yields superior results. Have your cat checked out. Prescription medication will be necessary, alongside potential lifestyle changes.
If your cat has always struggled with balance, it may live with cerebellar hypoplasia. This is a hereditary condition stemming from insufficient brain development during kittenhood. The Veterinary Journal links hypoplasia to mother cats suffering from feline panleukopenia virus while pregnant.
Cerebellar hypoplasia is not contagious and cannot be developed later in life. A cat is born with the condition or not. There is no cure, but cats typically adjust to their disability over time.
How Do Cat’s Whiskers Help Them?
A cat’s whiskers may play no role in balance, but they are vitally important to feline wellbeing. Whiskers are not just an aesthetic feature. They offer four key services:
- Aiding night vision by acting as feelers in the dark
- Allowing the cat to judge space and whether it will fit through a gap
- Sensing vibrations in the air, aiding hunting and avoidance of detection
- Expressing mood based on the position
Whiskers must never be trimmed. Removing a cat’s whiskers will greatly reduce its depth perception and comfort. Whiskers shed and regrow organically. Leave nature to take its course and your cat will be fine.
Feline vision varies, depending on the cat’s lifestyle. A cat that spends a great deal of time indoors will be nearsighted. Cats that roam are likelier to see at distance. This sacrifices the cat’s close-up vision.
Whatever your cat’s lifestyle, it will have a blind spot directly beneath the nose. Cats use their whiskers to make up for this shortfall. The whiskers extend and connect with physical items. The cat can then negotiate its way through territory it cannot see.
This is particularly helpful after dark as cats cannot see in pitch darkness. Whiskers are the feline equivalent of feeling your way around a dark room. By making use of these appendages, cats do not bump into furniture or inanimate objects.
Judging Area Mass
A popular internet meme dedicated to cats in boxes declares, “if I fit, I sit.” This is a reference to the feline tendency to squeeze into small spaces. The whiskers are what make this possible for a cat.
Cats love to squeeze into condensed areas. It makes them feel more secure. Cats will push their head into a box, plant pot or shelf initially. This is testing whether the space is wide enough to accommodate the animal.
If the whiskers can fit without bending or breaking, the cat will squeeze into the spot. This is based upon the logic that a cat’s whiskers exceed the width of its body. This only applies to healthy, slender cats, though.
If your cat has gained weight, its body mass will stretch beyond whiskers. The cat will not understand or acknowledge this. This is another reason to keep your cat trim. Becoming trapped in a space is undignified and potentially dangerous for cats.
Sensing Air Vibrations
A cat’s whiskers are sensitive to changes in air pressure. This can be an invaluable skill for cats. It helps them hunt, while also acting as an early warning system. It is difficult to creep up on a cat thanks to its whiskers.
If a human or animal is nearby, air pressure will change. This may be due to vibrations caused by noise, or a shift in temperature. As soon as the cat notices this, it takes necessary action. The cat may flee and hide, or it may prepare to stalk prey.
Cats can also seemingly predict weather changes through their whiskers. If a storm is coming, the air pressure will reflect this. This is why cats often commence hiding in advance of poor weather.
Like all feline anatomy, the whiskers can be used to determine a cat’s state of mind. Verbal cues from a cat are important. Understanding its body language is arguably even more pivotal. Take a look at your cat’s whiskers. This table explains what whisker positioning will mean:
|Neutral, held to the side||Happiness and contentment|
|Pulled forward and extended||Excitability – something has captured the cat’s attention|
|Moving backward||Caution and fearfulness|
|Pinned against the face||Aggression – the cat is planning an attack|
These body language cues must be observed in conjunction with the eyes, ears and tail. Whiskers alone may not paint a complete picture. They can be invaluable to understanding whether a cat will welcome attention, though.
Cats do not rely on their whiskers for balance. This does not make whiskers pointless or merely aesthetic as they are a critical part of feline anatomy.