A cat’s whiskers… what do they do besides tickle our faces in the middle of the night?
Known also as vibrissae or tactile hairs, the whiskers serve several functions and are highly sensitive. Thicker than the cat’s normal hair, the whiskers are really touch receptors that are rooted more deeply than normal hairs and are rich in nerve endings.
The whiskers are so sensitive they can aid the cat in detecting changes in air currents. This ability helps the cat navigate in a dark environment. Your cat uses her whiskers in the dark in the same way you would hold out your arms so your fingers could feel for objects. By determining changes in air currents, the cat can avoid walking into an object. This ability to detect air currents also helps when hunting because the cat can detect the potential swift movement of prey.
A Tight Squeeze or a Perfect Fit for Your Cat?
The muzzle whiskers also help the cat determine whether she can fit through a small opening. Theoretically, the muzzle whiskers are about the same as the cat’s body width so if they can fit through an opening without bending then the cat should be able to squeeze through. When a cat pokes her head into an opening, she’s not only looking around in there, she’s doing a whisker check to see if she can fit. Unfortunately, if the cat is overweight that whisker function isn’t always accurate.
On the muzzle, there are four rows of whiskers on each side. The top two rows can move independently from the bottom two rows.
A Cat’s Eye Protection
The whiskers above the eyes help when the cat is hunting in grass or bushy areas. They trigger a protective eye blink if there’s a branch or some brush that might get into the cat’s eyes. The whiskers also help during contact with other animals (including us) and if touched, they cause an eye blink.
Hunting Help for Cats
The carpal whiskers, located on the underside of the cat’s wrist are very useful in hunting. When the cat has prey captured in her paws, the carpal whiskers help determine if there’s any movement. Since cats can’t see as well up close, the carpal whiskers also help determine the position of the prey to help in delivering an accurate killing bite.
The cat’s whiskers are so valuable that if cut or chewed off, they can inhibit her hunting ability and even her ability to navigate around her environment. She may become fearful and disoriented. Never cut a cat’s whiskers as it’s extremely cruel and will cause pain due to their sensitivity.
Feline Mood Indicator
Your cat’s whiskers can also reflect her mood. When the whiskers are hanging loosely on either side, she’s probably relaxed. When getting ready for battle or is frightened, the whiskers are flattened against the face to prevent damage to them. When on the alert or hunting, the whiskers are forward-facing to aid in prey detection. Keep in mind though that you shouldn’t gauge your cat’s mood by just one thing. Take other body language signals into consideration along with the immediate environment.
The occasional whisker does fall out now and then so don’t be alarmed if you find one on the carpet. Whiskers do grow back.
Need More Information?
For more information about cat behavior and cat communication, refer to any of Pam’s books, including the latest release, CatWise. Pam’s books are available at bookstores everywhere, through your favorite online book retail site and also on our website.
Please note that Pam is unable to answer questions posted in the comment section. If you have a question about your cat’s behavior, you can find information in the articles on our website as well as in Pam’s books. If you have a question regarding your cat’s health, please contact your veterinarian.