Whiskers – or, to use their medical mocker, vibrissae – are an omnipresent feature of any feline’s face. It’s no secret that they are essential, but what is the purpose of a cat’s whiskers?
Many myths surround the cat’s whiskers. This guide will separate the fact from the fiction. We’ll look at the purpose of your cat’s whiskers, and just how important they are.
What are Whiskers for on Cats?
Whiskers are essentially a radar for your cat. Even though felines have excellent peripheral vision, they are comparatively near-sighted. As Discover Magazine explains, a cat struggles to focus on anything more than a foot in front of them. Their whiskers, along with their keen sense of smell, will make up this shortfall.
If your cat loses their whiskers, they become extremely disoriented and confused. This is not because whiskers control a cat’s sense of balance. They do, however, pick up all kinds of sensations that alerting your car to potential danger. Also, whiskers improve a cat’s depth perception, allowing them to run and jump with grace. Without this ability, forced to rely on their vision, cats become very unsure of themselves.
Cat whiskers are not a part of your cat’s fur. They are an organ, used to judge touch and distance. That’s not strictly true; a cat’s whiskers are 24 separate organs. You’ll find a dozen whiskers on each side of your cat’s face.
A cat has even more whiskers than this, though. If you look closely, you’ll find more above the eye. You might assume that these whiskers are eyebrows. Cats also have whiskers below their jaw, and on the back of their front legs.
How Does a Cat Use Its Whiskers?
A cat does not actively use their whiskers. The truth is, their whiskers use them! Even the slightest sensation can stimulate a cat’s whiskers, and send a message to their brain. A cat’s whiskers, known as vibrissae, are connected directly to their nervous system.
Your cat’s whiskers are rooted beneath their skin, and very sensitive to vibrations and touch. This is how a cat’s whiskers aid a feline’s depth perception. They help your pet to understand how far away something is. When we walk around in the darkness, we often use our fingers to feel the perimeter. This prevents us from bumping into walls or furniture. Your cat uses their whiskers for the same purpose.
Another principal purpose of whiskers is checking whether a cat will fit into a particular space. Cats love to hide. This means they may crawl into cardboard boxes, sock drawers, or even holes in the yard. A cat’s whiskers are normally the same length as their body. This means that your cat can judge whether they will fit into a space, and act accordingly. If their whiskers do not comfortably fit into a space, your cat will walk away. This could explain why your cat refuses to use their cat flap. If it’s narrow against their whiskers, your pet will worry they won’t fit through the gap.
Naturally, however, a cat’s whiskers will not grow according to a cat’s girth. If your pet has piled on extra weight, the whisker check will be inaccurate. This could lead to overweight pets getting stuck in tight spaces.
What is Whisker Fatigue?
If you think all this sensory input sounds grueling for your pet, you’d be right.
In theory, cats are capable of turning their whisker senses off and on at will. In reality, however, they tend to pick up on every sensation that comes their way. This constant barrage of information can end up frustrating your cat, which is hardly surprising.
If even a stuff breeze creates stimulation for your cat, they can become over-stimulated. It’s akin to being stuck in a room with a constant drone of background noise. The difference is that we, as humans, can tune this out. Cats cannot. Whisker fatigue is a slightly misleading name, as your cat will not necessarily be tired. They are, however, likely to be frustrated and sore. This can lead to stress, which is always dangerous in cats.
Whisker fatigue often manifests itself when it comes to eating. If your cat has whisker fatigue, they may display these common signs:
- Walking away from their food after a single bite.
- Pacing around their meal, as though wishing to eat but finding themselves unable.
- Knocking their food bowl over, and eating from the floor.
- Not eating, but growing aggressive toward other cats or humans that try to take the food.
Any reluctance to eat is worrying and should be investigated. It may be a case of whisker fatigue, though. The bowl is rubbing against your cat’s already-tender whiskers, causing them discomfort.
Thankfully, whisker fatigue is not a disease and clears itself up quickly. Even the feeding issue is easily resolved by changing your cat’s bowl to something substantially wider. Alternatively, consider using a flat dish with no risen sides at all. It may require more cleaning up afterward, but your pet will be much more comfortable. You should also consider providing your cat with a water source outside a bowl. A free-flowing cat water fountain is the best solution.
What you should never do is trim your cat’s whiskers to fit an existing bowl. This will be excruciatingly painful for your cat, and severely impact their quality of life. Fit your cat’s food and water stations around them, not the other way around.
Can a Cat’s Whiskers Reveal Their Mood?
Cat body language tells us an awful lot about how they are feeling. Swishing tails, arched backs, and flattened ears are all signs of a feline’s state of mind.
You can also look out for any of these whisker-related body language signs:
- Whiskers are drooping, or at rest. This means that your cat is in a state of relaxation. They do not sense any impending danger or stimulation.
- Whiskers raised, and flat against the face. This is a defensive posture, which means that your cat is on high alert. Keep your distance if your cat’s whiskers take this position. Your pet will consider anybody or anything that approaches to be a threat.
- Whiskers are standing straight, on end. This means that your cat has been startled. Perhaps they have been suddenly woken up from a nap, or they heard a loud noise.
- Whiskers are facing forward. This means that something has piqued your pet’s curiosity. They will be using their whiskers to make up for any shortfall in their vision. You will often find a cat’s whiskers facing this way if they are hunting. This could be while stalking live prey, or just playing with toys.
Do not attempt to agitate your cat’s whiskers to get a reaction. You’ll likely receive a response, but it will involve teeth and claws. Just observe from a safe distance, and use your pet’s whiskers to learn how they’re feeling.
Myths About Cat’s Whiskers
Many myths and fallacies surround cat whiskers. Let’s look at the most common misconceptions.
- Whiskers aid a cat’s balance. We have mentioned this already, but it bears repeating. Cat whiskers have no impact on their ability to balance.
- Whiskers bring good luck. Whiskers occasionally shed organically. Some cat owners like to keep them, claiming they bring good luck. We would never discourage anybody from doing something that brings them joy. There is no scientific basis in this myth, though.
- Whiskers change color as a cat grows older. As discussed, cat whiskers are separate organs, not part of your pet’s fur. Also, whiskers lack the melanin required to be any color other than white. As cats get older, their whiskers may appear darker as their fur grays.
- All cat whiskers are long and straight. Some breeds, particularly those belonging to the Rex genus, have short, curly whiskers. This is perfectly natural. However, never attempt to replicate this look on a cat with straight whiskers.
When in doubt, it’s safest to leave your cat’s whiskers well alone. Don’t panic if they shed. This happens naturally from time to time, and they’ll grow back. The only time to be concerned if your cat loses their whiskers through stress.
Whiskers may not help your cat land on their feet. However, they’re still essential to a feline’s trademark grace. Without the aid of their whiskers, cats struggle to judge distance and depth perception. This is why they are so pivotal to your pet’s general health.
Leave your cat’s whiskers alone wherever possible. They receive enough stimulation from the world around them, and they don’t need anymore. Do, however, feel free to sit back and watch your cat negotiate the world with them. It’s a fascinating sight, and another example of how felines are amazing creatures.