Everything you ever wanted to know about cats’ whiskers

Willoughby

Willoughby’s (A302865) owner could no longer care for him and brought him to Pasadena Humane. This gorgeous cat was described as a “real lovebug, loves to cuddle,” and is looking for a home that is willing to provide toys for him, give him attention, and make him feel a part of the family.

Last week, I told you about a friend of mine who just adopted a kitten that she named Hello. I’m happy to report that it’s been another week, and my friend has managed to keep Hello alive and well without a single mishap.

Unless you consider naming a cat Hello in the first place a mishap…in which case, it’s only been uphill from there.

In that column, I wrote about 10 things you should never do to your cat. The day after it appeared in print, a reader emailed me a very kind note of thanks — but pointed out that I left out one very important “don’t do.”

She pointed out that folks should never trim their cat’s whiskers. And she’s absolutely right.

As it turns out, those stiff hairs on your cat’s face and legs don’t just add to their cuteness — they have real work to do. To put it simply, whiskers are like GPS and radar systems for your cat. They are a powerful and important part of how a cat senses the world – so they need to be protected!

Each thick whisker is filled with tiny, super sensitive nerves that help your cat judge distance and space. It’s how they make decisions like: Is this box too small to get inside? How far do I need to jump to reach that counter?

It’s also how they detect what’s around them. In fact, cats that are blind can navigate rooms very well by just walking around and letting their whiskers get a sense of where they are spatially. This was definitely true for my cat, Bailey.

At his very last veterinary visit, I learned that he had lost his vision somewhere along the line. It was a shock to me because he had shown no signs of it that I could tell. He got around the house just fine and it certainly didn’t slow him down. When his eyes began to fail, his whiskers were his eyes.

#mindblown

The follicles — the sacs that hold the hairs — are deep, with lots of nerve endings that send messages to the cat’s brain.

There’s also a sensory organ at the tip of each whisker. It picks up vibrations in the environment that help the cat sense where they are and what other creatures are around them.

Most whiskers are rooted in the thick pads on the upper lip, but smaller sets are in the eyebrow area, along the chin, and near the feet.

The ones on the sides of the nose are the same width as your cat’s body; they help them figure out whether a space is wide enough to squeeze through.

Whiskers on the back of the legs help your cat climb trees.

Whiskers are also great at helping humans determine their cat’s mood. A complex set of muscles on the face moves whiskers back and forth. The way a cat arranges them will tell another animal — or us humans — how they are feeling.

When a cat is relaxed, their whiskers will remain still, sticking straight out from the side of their head. If they are curious or are on the hunt, they’ll press them slightly forward. Cats that are nervous or upset will pin the whiskers back toward the face.

Like other hairs on a cat’s body, whiskers shed. That’s normal. But again, you should never trim them. A cat with cut whiskers will become disoriented and scared.

If you cut them, that’s like blindfolding someone, taking away one of their ways of identifying what’s in their environment. No bueno.
Here are some other crazy cool facts about cat’s whiskers:

1. “Whisker” is an Old Word

The word “whisker” dates to around 1600 and was originally a playful formation from the Middle English word “wisker” meaning anything that whisks or sweeps. So I guess you could say your cat’s whiskers are like little brooms!

2. Whiskers Are Thicker Than Hair

Also called “vibrissae” or tactile hairs, whiskers are two to three times thicker than regular cat hair and are found not only on either side of the muzzle (those ones are called mystacial whiskers), but on the jaw, above the eyes and on the back of the forelegs as well.

3. Cats Have a Set Number of Mystacial Whiskers

There are usually about 12 mystacial whiskers on each side of the muzzle (although some cat have more); these are the longest of the facial vibrissae.

4. Whiskers Are Sensitive

Unlike human hair, whiskers are deeply embedded and connected to the nervous system. The whisker tips are equipped with sensory organs called proprioceptors that help the cat determine an object’s distance, direction and even surface texture. (Sounds kind of like a superpower to me!)

5. Cats Can Have Whisker Stress

If a cat is required to use a narrow food or water bowl, the pressure to its sensitive parts can cause what is known as “whisker stress.” (Yes, that’s a thing.) If your cat scoops food out with a paw or knocks food on the floor to eat, consider using a wider bowl.

6. Whisker Size Corresponds to the Size of the Cat

A cat’s whiskers correspond to the width of its body; it uses them to know whether or not it can fit through narrow spaces – in general, the chubbier a cat, the wider its whiskers.

7. Whiskers on the Legs Help With Hunting

The whiskers on the back of the front legs help a cat in climbing and importantly, they help when the cat is in contact with prey; they act as another set of eyes when determining where to deliver the fatal bite. (Sorry, birds and mice.)

8. Whiskers Can Move

Mystacial whiskers are connected to muscles that allow the cat to move them.

9. Whiskers Shed

Whiskers do shed, however, but don’t worry. They grow back on their own, allowing the natural cycle of accomplishment and cuteness to continue.

So there you have it. Cat whiskers are pretty much the coolest things ever, and now suddenly the beard on my face seems a lot less special.