Why do cats have whiskers? Cat whiskers don’t just look cool — they’re the Swiss Army knife of your cat’s sensory and communications tool kit. Not only do they help her figure out where she’s going, they also tell her whether she’ll fit through openings, and they serve as an obvious demonstration of her mood. Here are seven interesting facts about cat whiskers — from why cats have whiskers to what exactly they do!
Cat whiskers are rooted much more deeply in the skin than ordinary fur, and the area around cat whiskers has a very generous supply of nerves and blood. This makes the whisker tips so sensitive that they can detect even the slightest change in the direction of a breeze. Because of that sensitivity, it can actually cause your cat pain if you mess with her whiskers. Eating out of a bowl that presses on your cat’s whiskers can also be disturbing, so consider feeding your cat on a plate or buying her a wide, flat feeding bowl.
In addition to the eight to 12 cat whiskers your cat has on either side of her nose, she also has shorter whiskers above her eyes, on her chin, and on the backs of her lower front legs.
The whiskers on your cat’s nose are generally about as long as your cat is wide, so they help her to figure out how wide an opening is and whether she’ll fit through it. Some people say that if cats gain weight, their whiskers get longer; I haven’t seen enough evidence to know whether this is true.
Cats are farsighted — they can’t see well up close — so when they catch their prey, whether that prey is a mouse or their favorite feather toy, they need some way to sense that their prey is in the proper position for the fatal bite. The whiskers on the back of your cat’s forelegs, and to a lesser extent, those on her chin and the sides of her nose, are crucial for that purpose.
The position of your cat’s whiskers can be an indicator of her mood. If her whiskers are relaxed and sticking out sideways, she’s calm. If they’re pushed forward, that means she’s excited and alert. And if they’re flattened against her cheeks, she’s angry or scared. Of course, you’ll need to check her “whiskergram” against her other body language, such as the position of her ears and tail, to confirm what those cat whiskers are telling you.
Although your cat does shed a couple of whiskers from time to time, you should never trim cat whiskers. She’ll become disoriented and may begin acting dizzy and confused because she’s no longer receiving those vital navigation signals. Imagine if somebody grabbed you and put a blindfold on you and you couldn’t take it off for a few weeks — that’s about what it’s like for a cat whose whiskers get cut off.
Don’t be surprised if you find a white whisker growing in your pure black cat’s fur as she ages: Cats do start going gray with age, but it’s not noticeable unless your cat’s fur is a dark, solid color.
Thumbnail: Photography ©Анатолий Тушенцов | Thinkstock.
This piece was originally published in 2017.