In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews’ character, Maria, sings about a few of her favorite things. The top of the list – even before copper kettles and brown-paper packages tied up with string – includes “whiskers on kittens.”
Of course, whiskers on kittens and adult cats are quite adorable, but do they actually serve a purpose? Indeed, cats have whiskers for many reasons! And incredible abilities of cat whiskers give us even more reasons to love felines!
The Mustache Zone
Strategically placed on both sides of the nose, above the eyes, beneath the chin, and even on the back sides of the front limbs, feline whiskers act like a third eye. Thicker, longer and stiffer than regular hairs, whiskers are deeply rooted in the skin where they’re surrounded by muscles, blood vessels, and nerves.
Sight Through Touch
Despite being referred to as tactile hairs, whiskers don’t feel anything. Instead, their special anatomy allows them register the slightest vibrations surrounding them (whiskers are called vibrissae, meaning to vibrate). The proprioceptor at the end of each whisker sends signals to the supply of nerves at the base of each whisker. Via the central nervous system, information gathered by the whiskers, arrives in the brain where it is quickly processed.
One of the reasons cats have whiskers is to help them navigate their environment. Since they are far-sighted, whiskers help them to “see” objects up close.
Cats have whiskers to tell them if they’re squeezing into a space that’s dangerously tight. In fact, the width of whiskers jutting out from the face are typically the same measurement as the body’s width, thus informing a curious cat that an opening may not fit the rest of the body.
Whiskers also pick up on barriers, changes in air current, narrow landings, and even distance. Even in dim light, cats negotiate their environment with ease, in part due to their whiskers’ abilities.
Thanks to the dense cluster of nerves, muscles, and blood vessels at the base of each whisker, cats increase their predatory skills tenfold. Undoubtedly, the proprioceptors at the tips of whiskers pick up vibrations of prey, and send these signals to the brain for interpretation. You might even observe that when hunting, cats push their facial whiskers forward to detect size, shape, location, and direction of their prey.
More Than Hunting and Navigation
Additionally, cats have whiskers to communicate mood. Look closely for any movement of their whiskers. When happy or satisfied, the whiskers will be still and calm. Tightly drawn whiskers can indicate fear or aggression. And, as we mentioned above, forward-facing whiskers are employed when hunting or playing.
Cats Have Whiskers (and We’re Glad!)
It’s normal for cats to shed whiskers occasionally; new ones will grow in. Because of their importance to a cat’s hunting skills and orientation, whiskers should never be pulled out or trimmed.
Likewise, be sure to supply your cat with shallow water and food bowls, as the constant rubbing of the whiskers on deep-sided dishes can cause irritation and whisker fatigue.
Experts in Feline Behavior
Should you have further questions regarding why cats have whiskers, or have concerns about your cat’s behavior, please contact us. Our experts in cat care are always here to help at Oakhurst Veterinary Hospital.