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Cats are masterpieces of multifunctionality. Vibrissae, or whiskers, are a perfect example of this. They are tactile organs that perform multiple jobs, all with the ultimate purpose of upping the odds of survival. The job description for whiskers include: guidance and navigation system, mood indicator, and aid for hunting. Some other facts: Whiskers do not live just on either side of the muzzle. They are located above the eyes, on the sides of mouths, on chins and just above the paws on the underside of forelegs. Check out the whiskers on your cat’s legs!
Cat whiskers are much thicker than other cat hair. Vibrissae located on a cat’s cheek are embedded about three times deeper than other hairs, and they contain their own blood supply. Additionally, each follicle has an abundant amount of sensory nerve cells and is surrounded by muscle tissue. The nerves increase sensitivity, allowing cats to detect subtle changes around them, and the muscles animate the whiskers, moving them forward and backwards. Cat whiskers are sensing and communication systems — without them, a cat is toast.
Here’s an in-depth look at the roles whiskers play in cats’ lives:
Cats do not always have successful hunting excursions. The difference between a successful hunt and a failed one can determine an individual cat’s survival. She is as serious about catching dinner as her prey is about not becoming the main course.
Whiskers increase the probability of successful, high-yield hunts. They help fine-tune hunting and act as guidance systems. Because whiskers feel air currents, it is possible that they help cats determine whether it is worth the effort to pursue an individual animal for dinner. Along with scent and visuals, they might aid cats in detecting whether they are upwind or downwind from their prey — important information for upping the odds for having a successful hunt.
Vibrissae are also sensitive to touch, functioning somewhat like fingers. When cats are moving in for the kill, they need to be effective with the first bite. A misplaced bite can result in the prey biting back, inflicting serious injury on the cat. Cats cannot see their quarry up close. The whiskers help resolve this problem by providing information to the little predator about the spatial positioning, texture, and movement of their prey. This guides the cat to the area to inflict the kill bite. Cats who have injured whiskers will often bite the wrong area, not immediately killing the animal and opening themselves up to being bitten back.
Whiskers double as guidance systems. Because they feel the air currents bouncing off obstacles, whiskers help cats navigate around objects they cannot see. Some say that whiskers also help cats determine whether they will fit into tight areas, because whiskers are the same width as a cat’s body. I am not sure about this, because I have met some very fat cats with comparatively short whiskers.
Who needs a mood ring when there are whiskers? Whiskers communicate emotions. Facial whiskers flattened against and pulled back along the face indicate a defensive and fractious cat. It is not a good idea to approach, pet, or pick up a cat who has her whiskers flattened against the sides of her face. In contrast, cats who hold their whiskers at an angle away from their faces are expressing relaxation and contentment.
Become a whisker watcher. You will notice your cat’s whiskers are extremely expressive. When my cats come to greet me and I reach to pet their heads, their whiskers usually move subtly forward in anticipation. You can tell when cats are greeting cat buddies — their whiskers are usually slightly angled and move towards their friend. Cat whiskers typically get into action during a yawn, positioning into a wide, expressive fan.
A book should be written about the language of cat whiskers.
Because whiskers contain hundreds of nerve cells, cats are very sensitive to how objects feel when their whiskers touch them. Often cats will avoid putting their heads in their food bowls to eat. Instead, they will dip their paws into the bowls, grab morsels of food, and eat them off their paws. This usually indicates that the food bowls are too deep and narrow. Most cats do not like to feel the sides of the bowls on their delicate whiskers. The solution is to provide cats with wide shallow bowls.
One aspect of whiskers still puzzles us — sometimes queens chew off the whiskers of their kittens. There are many theories about why this happens, but no one knows for sure. But we’re learning more about whiskers all the time. A number of studies are currently under way to help us unravel their mystery and understand their capabilities.
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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.
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