Cat Whiskers: Q&A
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley April 18, 2019
One of the most prominent and endearing features on a cat is their whiskers. As cat owners, we notice the subtle changes in the way our cats hold their whiskers and may be able to subconsciously understand what they are trying to tell us. Our cats might also tickle us with their whiskers when they are snuggling up close. Whiskers are not only vital in communication with other cats and humans, but they also help cats navigate the world around them. Whiskers are a pretty cool feature on our cats. So in this article, we will answer everything you have ever wanted to know about them.
What Are Cat Whiskers Made Of?
Whiskers are long, specialized hairs that are made of keratin (Grunbaum, 2013).
Why Are Whiskers So Long?
Whiskers act as receptors for cats. Cats are built to be active in low-light environments (Stella & Buffington, 2013). Whiskers help cats navigate their surroundings (especially in the dark) and send a lot of cues to the brain about their environment. Whiskers help inform a cat if they can fit into certain areas as they move around in the dark because they are about the width of a cat (Johnson-Bennett).
What Is The Purpose Of Whiskers And How Do They Work?
Whiskers help cats better experience the world around them. They are rooted deeper in the skin than normal hairs and contain thousands of nerve endings that send information about the environment to the brain. The end of the whiskers will brush up against the cat’s surroundings to help the cat “see” and “feel” its environment, even in the dark. Whiskers not only send signals about the size of the space the animal is in, but they can also communicate other details as well, such as textures and air currents (Grunbaum, 2013; Johnson-Bennett).
Do Cats Only Have Whiskers On Either Side Of Their Nose?
No. Cats also have whiskers above their eyes, on their chin, and on their front legs. When cats are hunting prey, they use the whiskers in these locations to help them locate, hold on to, and kill prey items (Johnson-Bennett).
What Other Animals Have Whiskers?
Humans and other apes are the only mammals without whiskers. The rest of the animals in the Mammalian class have them. Seals have the most sensitive whiskers of all the mammals and use them to detect fish in murky water (Grunbaum, 2013).
Is It True That Whiskers Are Extra Sensitive?
Yes! Whiskers are filled with nerves and can detect the slightest changes in the cat’s environment (Grunbaum, 2013). Because of this, whiskers are extra sensitive. This can cause your cat discomfort. Touching, pulling, or otherwise manipulating cat whiskers can make them uncomfortable. Some cats develop whisker sensitivity to their food and water bowls. It is recommended to provide cats wide, flat bowls to allow them to eat and drink without their whiskers touching the bowl (Stella & Buffington, 2013).
Can You Cut Whiskers? What Happens If Cats Do Not Have Whiskers?
You should not cut your cat’s whiskers! This can cause fear and disorientation in your kitty. Due to the extreme sensitivity of the whiskers, cutting them or removing them in any way may also cause pain. Whiskers shed on their own, so finding one in your home is no cause for concern (Johnson-Bennett).
Can Whiskers Show Emotion?
Yes! Look for changes in the way your kitty is holding their whiskers. Relaxed whiskers in their normal sideways position indicate a relaxed, content cat. If your cat’s whiskers are flat back, this may indicate fear or aggression. Cats that are playful or on the hunt will have their whiskers more upright and pointing outward to allow them to pick up cues from the environment about their prey or toy (Johnson-Bennett).
Whiskers are a vital part of your cat’s anatomy. Now that you know more about them, you can help make your cat’s life more comfortable. Your cat’s whiskers are extremely important as they help them explore their surroundings, particularly in low lighting. Whiskers are also extremely sensitive. Refrain from touching your cat’s whiskers or manipulating them in any way, as this could cause discomfort and disorient your cat. Provide food and water in shallow bowls to allow your cat to eat and drink without touching their whiskers to the sides of the bowls. Monitor your cat for whisker sensitivity throughout their life. Even if your cat does not seem to have a problem with their current food and water bowls, they may develop one later on, so keep an eye on them and be prepared to accommodate them as needed. Cats are fascinating creatures and we hope that you enjoyed learning a little more about their lives.
Grunbaum, M. 2013. SuperScience 24(4):14.
Johnson-Bennett, P. Your Cat’s Whiskers. Cat Behavior Associates. Retrieved April 13, 2019.
Stella, J.L., and C.A.T. Buffington. 2013. Individual and environmental effects on health and welfare. In D. Turner and P. Bateson (Eds), The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour (p. 201-212). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.