Whiskers are so much more than a beautiful facial feature to enhance a feline’s good looks. They are nature’s amazing version of a radar/early warning system that literally guides every step a cat takes. As a result, cats are capable of truly amazing feats such as walking on ledges, gauging and jumping distances and squeezing through narrow spaces.
Let’s get physiological about whiskers
The veterinary term for whiskers is vibrissae from the Latin word vibrio, meaning “to vibrate.” These long, stiff hairs project outward prominently on the muzzle on either side of the nose and on the cheek area. If you look closely, there are also shorter whiskers protruding from under the chin, above the eyes (the feline version of eyebrows) and also at the back of their front paws, known as carpal whiskers. While whiskers are usually straight, they can also be curly.
All whiskers, wherever they are located on the body, have very delicate sensory “feelers” or touch receptors at the tip. These are called proprioceptors and are designed to send tactile signals to the brain and nervous system. These delicate hairs also respond to vibrations in the air. Consequently, this kitty radar system allows them to detect even the smallest changes to their immediate surroundings; to make quick, safe decisions with regard to their next immediate movement; and gauge whether they can jump a certain distance by visually measuring the distance, fit in a narrow space and walk on a pencil-thin ledge, even in the dark. And they assist a cat when he’s in hunting mode to catch prey and still remain out of harm’s way in the process.
Consequently, whiskers should never be cut or pulled on. Also, because of the “work” they do to keep a cat safe, they are extremely sensitive even to playful touch. So, cats prefer if you look but don’t touch.
Your cat’s whiskers indicate his mood
Apart from being a highly accurate guidance, tracking and radar system, whiskers also serve as an indicator of a cat’s mood.
- They are immobile when a cat is sitting or lying contentedly in a favorite snooze zone.
- They can bunch up and flatten against the face indicating a potential danger and, hence, fear of a pending situation.
- When every hair on the cat’s body and tail also fluffs out, giving the appearance that the cat has doubled in size, it’s a sign that a cat believes himself to be in real imminent danger.
- When the whiskers “swivel” and point forward, it is a feline sign of going into hunting mode, even if the “prey” is a favorite toy.
What is whisker fatigue or whisker stress?
Some people believe that cats fed meals in small bowls may suffer from whisker fatigue or whisker stress, when the delicate whiskers are in constant touch with the sides of a bowl. There are even several food bowls on the market designed to take the whiskers into account when a cat is eating.
However, there is no scientific proof backing this up. Catster contacted the American Association of Feline Practitioners for its view on whisker fatigue. Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (Feline), who is the CEO for Chico Hospital for Cats, Inc., an AAFP board member and past president plus co-chair of the Cat Friendly Practice Committee, tells Catster, “Whiskers (vibrissae) are very important sense organs for cats. Vibrissae detect small motion, even air movement to help this far-sighted species with close-up objects. They are useful in dark places, for example, hunting in the woods for a mouse, so it is theoretically possible for ‘overstimulation.’ This might be similar to smelling an odor for a while and then the odor isn’t detectable any longer. However, there’s absolutely no evidence that it happens or that it changes a cat’s interest in food.”
“It is perilous to ‘blame’ an unproven theory for any change in a cat’s appetite,” Dr. Colleran continues.“It might mean electing not to pursue this very, very important alteration in a cat’s behavior. Any cat who has changes in his/her interest in and behavior around eating should see a veterinarian to find out why this is so. Cats do have preferences about how they consume nutrients. Some even prefer drinking out of a cup or glass, which won’t protect whiskers from being touched.”
What myths are associated with cat whiskers?
While there are lots of myths surrounding cats in general, there is no definitive myth surrounding the whiskers. Some people believe that if a cat loses a whisker, picking it up and keeping it will bring luck. (They do grow back!) The idiom “to be the cat’s whiskers” means to be better or superior to everyone else. It’s similar to being the cat’s meow, the cat’s pajamas, the bee’s knees or the best thing since sliced bread.
It all makes a lot of sense; cats are superior — even dogs know that! No animal has an innate radar system quite like a fabulous feline.
Lions and their whiskers
According to zoologist Joanne McGonagle, big cats such as lions, tigers, snow leopards and other wild cats also have long whiskers that, just like their Felis catus domestic relatives, can sense objects even without making physical contact. This gives the big cat a signal of where to inflict the kill bite when taking down prey. Joanne, who is also the founder of Triple T Studios, an online store that supports global big cat conservation projects, adds that it’s possible to identify a lion from the whisker spots that are found in rows on each side of the face.
“You can also identify a male lion by his mane, but a mane can change throughout the lion’s life depending upon age and health,” she explains. “Only the whisker spots remain unchanged throughout a lion’s life. “There are two rows: the reference row and the identification spots. The reference row is the top complete row of whisker spots. Above the reference row, you will find an incomplete row of up to five identification spots. This incomplete row of identification spots are the spots that give the whisker spot pattern. The pattern is different on both sides of the face and unique to each lion.”
Thumbnail: Photography ©Amelia Soper | www.stockpetphotography.com.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in Catster magazine. Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Catster magazine delivered straight to you!
Ziggy and Tory “work” as feline muses for Sandy Robins, an award-winning multimedia pet lifestyle expert, author and pet industry personality. They like to disrupt the workflow by playing fetch with wand toys and directing food operations in the kitchen. Learn more about Sandy at sandyrobinsonline.com.
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