Whiskers are a signature feature of cats. These wiry hairs are charming, but what purpose do they serve?
Cats have whiskers on their face to help them balance, hunt, and compensate for their relatively poor eyesight. Whiskers can detect movement in the air, which helps cats detect nearby objects. As they move, they stir up the air, and when it bounces back at them, they know an object is close.
Whiskers are extremely helpful tools for animals. Read on to discover just how much they can do and why your kitten has them.
What Are Whiskers?
Whiskers are long, stiff hairs that extend outward from an animal’s cheeks. They are rigid yet moveable. The hairs themselves don’t have any sensitivity or feeling. If you trim your cat’s whiskers, you won’t physically cause them pain, but you may lower a lot of their abilities.
At the base of the long, stiff hairs are bundles of blood vessels and sensitive nerves. They combine to create sensory organs called “proprioceptors.” These nerves detect the whiskers’ movement and send signals to the brain for the animal to analyze.
A cat may twitch its whiskers as a sort of reset button, like blinking your eyes to clear your vision. When cats are trying to detect the location of something or preparing for an incoming attack of some sort, their whiskers will stand out straight, ready to sense any shift in the atmosphere.
Whiskers Help Cats Balance
The proprioceptors at the end of the whiskers are highly sensitive. They send reports to the brain of the cat’s body’s position relative to the space around them. They communicate with the brain constantly, reporting every movement instantaneously, which allows cats to react rapidly. This is partially responsible for a cat’s ability to always land on its feet.
Whiskers Act as a Sensory Aid
Felines have an amazing sense of smell and hearing abilities. Relative to these superpowers, their eyesight is quite poor. Whiskers help compensate for their eyesight. As cats move throughout a space, their body stirs up the air, sending it outward. If the air hits an object, it bounces back at the cat and moves its whiskers, letting the cat know that something is there.
This is similar to echolocation in bats who send out high-pitched sounds to locate objects in the dark. When the sound waves bounce back to the bat, they know the object’s size and distance—whiskers aid cats in moving throughout the world so gracefully.
Whiskers Express Emotions
Cats also use whiskers to express their emotions. A cat on high alert will stiffen its whiskers straight outward, waiting to sense any change in the air around them. Content and the relaxed cat will let their whiskers fall back, not needing them to detect anything. A curious or playful cat will let its whiskers fan outward and upward, creating a perky frame for its face.
Your cat may flatten her whiskers against her cheek and rub them on you. Cats rub their faces on people and objects to mark them as their territory by spreading their pheromones. You can also imagine that this would feel good for the kitty, as they have so many nerve receptors at the base of their whiskers. Rubbing them on you or a chair leg is like massaging a sore neck.
Whiskers Detect Airflow
Whiskers are extremely sensitive to changes in the air around them. A cat can detect extremely small movements around them just by the slight stir of the air around their whisker. This is extremely helpful when hunting small prey, like a mouse or a bird. If a mouse runs past them, the air that they move will hit the cat’s whiskers and alert the cat to the mouse’s location.
If wind or air movement disturbs the cat’s whiskers, they will also know which direction the object is coming from. air hitting the left whiskers will alert them of an object to the left, and the same for the right. If the upper whiskers are hit with air, the object may be coming from above.
Whiskers Alert of Incoming Objects
We know that these sensitive hairs can detect when air bounces back off an object, but they also let the cat know of unexpected impacts. If a swipe from an enemy is coming towards the cat’s face, it will likely hit the whiskers first. Since the cat’s reactions are so fast, they will immediately lurch away from the incoming threat.
While they might not avoid the blow altogether, the cat will have a much better chance of dodging the attack because of their whiskers. This dodging ability is also helpful if a cat is moving through a small or dark space. If their whiskers come in contact with something, they can avoid running into it headfirst.
Whiskers can also catch incoming dust and dirt, protecting the cat’s eyes from getting infected. This is the same reason we have eyebrows and eyelashes.
Do Cats Need Whiskers?
Whiskers are extremely helpful for cats, especially when hunting, balancing, and finding their way in the dark. You should never trim your cat’s whiskers for cosmetic reasons, as you will affect their ability to move through the world.
However, a cat will not die or become sick if they lose their whiskers. If your cat singes its whiskers over a flame or catches them in a door, your cat will be completely fine. They won’t even feel pain in the whisker itself. However, the sensitive nerve ending may become irritated if the whisker is hit too hard.
Do Whiskers Grow Back?
Yes, your cat’s whiskers will grow back. You may find one of your cat’s whiskers lying about. You’ll know it’s a whisker by the hair’s density and rigidity, which is very different from their other fur. If you do find a whisker, it’s completely normal. Your cat sheds its whiskers from time to time, just like their fur. This is a completely natural process, and they will grow back.
This regrowth is also relieving in case you have made the mistake of trimming your cat’s whiskers. They will grow back, so you haven’t permanently damaged your pet, though they may be disoriented for a little while.
Where Do Cats Have Whiskers?
Cat’s whiskers are located in more areas than just their cheeks! Cats’ longest whiskers extend out in rows from their cheeks, but they also have whiskers above their eyes, on their chin, above their mouth, around their ears, and even on their forelegs. This pattern of whiskers helps cats detect the tiniest movements all around their bodies.
Other Animals With Whiskers
Cats are not the only animals with whiskers. These vibrational sensors (known as vibrissae) are trademarks for cats, but many other animals reap their benefits as well. Other creatures with whiskers include:
- Most mammals
- Sea lions
- Some types of fish
Whiskers are a key component in your cat’s ability to balance, move in the dark, and defend themselves. The stiff hairs are highly sensitive to vibrations in the air around them, and the patterning of the hairs over the front of the cat’s body allows them to react quickly to incoming threats and objects. Whiskers help the cat remain oriented in space when they are falling or jumping and expressing a cat’s emotions.
However, these amazing hairs are shed naturally, and they do grow back, so don’t fret if you notice your furry friend is missing a whisker or two!