The longer you study your cat, the more fine details you’ll recognize — the sandpaper-esque tongue, slit-shaped pupils, and distinct M-shaped forehead marking. But when Fluffy nuzzles against your face, you discover something quite new (and tickly): Absurdly long whiskers. Why are your cat’s whiskers so long?
Your cat’s whiskers are so long because they’re proportional to its body. A cat’s whiskers will be about half of a cat’s width, as these hairs help to navigate their environment and judge space (‘Can I fit?’). Large breeds like Maine Coons have longer whiskers, sometimes long as 7.5 inches (19 cm).
Cat whiskers aren’t just ultra-coarse, long cheek hairs or the feline version of a mustache. The reason your cat’s whiskers are so long comes down to only one factor. To learn about why your cat’s whiskers are so long, read on!
Where Are a Cat’s Whiskers?
Cats have neatly-arranged whiskers just beside their noses on both cheeks, often with four parallel rows boasting three whiskers apiece — 24 in total. But these thick, coarse, and deeply-embedded hairs are also in places you likely wouldn’t think to look, such as:
- Above their ears and eyes (they look like absurdly long eyebrows)
- Along their jaws and chins
- On the backs of their forelegs
- On their upper lips
Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
Feline whiskers aren’t just stylishly-long, cone-shaped hairs. These keratin-infused hairs are densely-packed with ultra-sensitive nerve endings and several blood vessels.
Whiskers, sometimes called ‘tactile hairs,’ function as touch receptors in the same way that insects use their antennas. When a cat’s facial whiskers brush up against a cabinet, small food bowl, or fence gap, it’ll deliver a sensory message to her brain describing the object or space.
These ultra-sensitive whiskers help cats:
A cat’s whiskers might be twice as thick as her naturally plush mane, but these coarse hairs are also no strangers to movement. These ultra-sensitive receptors can identify even the mildest breezes and gentle nudges. A cat who senses these vibrations may be able to detect a quickly-approaching predator or incoming toy while napping.
Feel Nearby Objects
Cats have wicked visual acuity when it comes to spotting sprinting rodents or a mouse toy after midnight. What a cat cannot see clearly up close, she can feel with these nerve-dense hairs. Kitties will often rely on their whiskers to learn more about their environments and the locations of items within them — a food bowl, small crinkle ball, soft blanket, or tossed treat.
Whiskers’ balance-related bonus is still moderately-disputed in the veterinary community. Since these densely-packed hairs are proprioceptors (sensory organs), they might alert a cat to her current body position. A cat who understands where all four paws are at all times can:
- Land high jumps with grace
- Master precise jumps onto countertops, tables, or shelves
- Chase prey confidently (and evade predators)
Other vets revert to well-established science to explain a cat’s impeccable balance — inner ear fluid. Either way, cats who suffer from yanked or chopped whiskers can no longer depend on these built-in navigation devices. These cats may become dizzy, uncoordinated, or confused.
A cat will use her whiskers as she explores a new environment or prepares to attempt a daring leap. The video below shows feline whiskers in action and slow motion.
Cats don’t trim their whiskers in the same way that humans shave their facial hair. Nor are these rogue 8-12 thickened hairs a feline fashion statement.
For our four-legged friends, whiskers are practical sensory receptors! In particular, these hairs help cats perceive depth: How far away an object is or how much space is between two items.
Cats struggle to detect stationary objects or wandering prey that are 12′ or closer without these nearby items looking fuzzy or undetailed. A curious kitty might approach a propped-open shed door and not be able to gauge whether her whole body will fit!
That’s where a cat’s whiskers (and their length) become crucial.
When fully outstretched, cat whiskers usually extend to the edge of a cat’s body — or half the width. A cat who pokes her head into a narrow space and can feel the walls with her whiskers will realize it’s a tight squeeze. These highly-sensitive hairs take over for her eyes up close.
Now, let’s go back to our original question — Why are your cat’s whiskers so long?
A 20-pound Maine Coon will be significantly wider than a 6-pound Munchkin. A larger cat needs longer whiskers to match her size better and remain safe when exploring the once-uncharted territory. The size-whisker connection explains why these large breeds have long whiskers:
- Maine Coons
- Norwegian Forest Cats
- Siberian Cats
The opposite is also true. The Devon Rex and Cornish Rex are stereotypically thin and acrobatic breeds, explaining why their whiskers tend to be curlier and shorter!
The Longest-Ever Cat Whiskers
The standard 3-4′ (7.6-10.2 cm) cat whiskers seem long as they glisten in the sun, collect dinner gunk, or get tangled in knit blankets. But the longest-measured cat whiskers are even larger than you’d imagine! A Maine Coon named Missi still holds the Guinness World Record for this incredible feat, with her longest whisker sprawling 7.5 inches (19 centimeters) in 2005.
Should You Trim a Cat’s Whiskers?
Those beautifully-long whiskers can be a hassle to care for, especially if your cat is a messy eater, notoriously leans too close to candles, or plays rough with her pals. But you should never trim, yank, or clip a cat’s whiskers for two reasons:
- A cat will naturally shed her whiskers a few at a time when they become brittle. Fresh, strong, full-length whiskers will grow back within 2-3 months.
- Cats rely on their whiskers for survival. When a cat loses these dependable sensory receptors, she can become heavily-disoriented. Trimmed or pulled whiskers may impair a cat’s balance, fail to alert her to approaching predators, or make her feel helpless.
Cats use their whiskers so often that cutting them is equivalent to blindfolding them and abandoning them unprotected in a forest full of predators. Trimming cat whiskers isn’t painful but can be life-threatening in cats who venture outdoors.
Do Cats Ever Lose Their Whiskers?
A cat will lose her whiskers occasionally as the hairs become brittle and loosen in the follicle sacs. Cats usually shed whiskers because of force or repeated irritation from things like:
- Rough play sessions with mouthing
- Dust or mite allergies causing excess face scratching
- Parasitic, fungal, or bacterial infections leading to sores
- Feline acne triggering open wounds and lesions near the whiskers
- Alopecia (hair loss and patches)
- Being close to candles or other heat sources
- Excess stress (like introducing a new cat or moving)
Cats might lose a few whiskers at a time without causing concern. But if your cat returns home with several missing or broken whiskers, take him or her to the vet. Your cat may have gotten into a brawl with a fellow tomcat, is suffering from malnutrition, or has an undiagnosed disorder.
Long whiskers are typical in larger breeds like Maine Coons or Ragdolls. It’s a cat’s ‘cheat sheet’ for discovering whether she can fit into tight spaces — like a fence hole or cracked door — without becoming trapped.
However, abnormally short whiskers can be concerning. Common causes like roughhousing or excess grooming might be innocent at first. But your kitty may feel disoriented, make perilous leaps, or topple over from dizziness.
It could be 2-3 months before your cat’s most reliable sensory receptors return. Take your cat to the vet if broken or shed whiskers are happening more regularly.
- Guinness World Record: Longest Cat Whiskers
- Discover Magazine: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About … Cats
- Wikipedia: Cornish Rex
- CFA: Devon Rex
- VCA Hospitals: Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
- VCA Hospitals: Chin Acne in Cats
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.