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Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?

Cat Whiskers
Written by Elizabeth Italia, UW-AAB
—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸

Whisker Wednesday is a popular social media hashtag, but do you know why cats have whiskers? Do you know how they work? 

Whether long or short they are a big part of how cats navigate their environment. Let’s explore.

What Are Whiskers?

Whiskers are found on the cheeks, eyebrows, jaw, and back of the front legs. Each location provides the cat with additional information. 

Whiskers are sort of like extra eyes and fingertips for cats, and help cats navigate and attack and kill prey, even in the dark. 

Cats that are blind use their whiskers to tell them what their eyes can’t see, and that’s why a blind cat can move through a house without bumping into walls or objects.

Whiskers, technically called vibrissae (“to vibrate”), are pieces of keratin that are two or three times thicker than fur and full of extremely sensitive nerves. 

The tip of each whisker has a sensory organ called a proprioceptor that picks up vibrations, moving air currents, the location of the cat’s limbs and body, and even the size, location, distance, direction, and texture of other objects and animals. 

The roots of whiskers are three times deeper than fur roots, and the follicles are full of nerve endings that send messages to the brain. 

In fact, each whisker is traced to a specific spot on the brain. According to VCA Hospitals, nearly 40% of the sensory area in the brain aligns with the parts of a cat’s body that have whiskers.

Larger whiskers are called macrovibrissae, and they can be moved independently, whereas smaller whiskers, or microvibrissae, can’t be moved but are perfect for object detention.

As a cat ages, the whiskers may turn grey or black, but this doesn’t always happen.

Mystacial Whiskers - Whiskers on the Cheeks

The whiskers on a cat’s cheeks are called mystacial whiskers. 

Most cats have 12 on either cheek for a total of 24. Some cats have more but they always have an even amount and they’re distributed symmetrically in order to provide the most accurate information. 

Mystacial whiskers are usually the width of the cat’s body, which is why Maine Coons tend to have very long whiskers—they have very big bodies. If a cat is overweight, their whiskers will not grow to accommodate their new size, which is just another reason to make sure your cat is maintaining a healthy weight.

These whiskers help the cat determine if they can fit through an opening, how far they are from objects (great for jumping), and how close they are to the walls or furniture. 

Air currents are different based on the location of objects and furniture in your home, and your cat’s whiskers deliver this information to the brain, preventing them from bumping into things.

Mystacial whiskers also do something extraordinary while a cat is hunting. When an object is too close for a cat to see, its eyes give up trying to focus on the prey, and the whiskers move directly forward so the cat can pinpoint its prey and attack with its claws. This all happens within a fifth of a second and is just another example of how they are incredible hunters.

Superciliary Whiskers - Whiskers Above the Eyes

The whiskers above the eyes are called superciliary, and they help protect the cat’s eyes from injury and dirt. 

A single piece of dust can cause injury to a cat’s eye, so if dust gets stuck on their whiskers, they shake their head until it falls off. If a cat’s outside, the whiskers will detect sharp objects first so they can properly protect their eyes and face. 

Mandibular Whiskers - Whiskers on the Chin

Whiskers on the cat’s chin are called mandibular, and they’re used in hunting to deliver a killing bite. They’re also helpful for navigating in the dark, as well as determining the size, location, and texture of an item a cat is rubbing against when scent marking.

Carpal Whiskers - Whiskers on the Back of the Front Legs

Called carpal whiskers, the whiskers on the back of the front legs serve a very important purpose and help with hunting and climbing trees. They are sort of like another set of eyes for the cat, which is especially helpful since cats don’t see very well up close.

Carpal whiskers help a cat determine the exact distance and location of prey directly in front of the cat, and how the prey is moving. After a cat catches prey, the whiskers communicate if the prey is about to get away or try to harm the cat, so the cat can reposition and make a killing bite without actually seeing the prey. 

Lastly, cats use their hind legs to bunny foot prey, disemboweling them (I know, gross). 

You’ve likely seen this behavior during play, and that’s because play and predatory behavior are tightly connected. Whiskers tell the cat exactly where the prey is located so they can proceed with using their hind legs.

Communication

The position of a cat’s whiskers can tell you what type of mood they’re in:

  • Flat against the cheeks means a cat is fearful, threatened, or angry.
  • Pointed slightly forward means a cat is alert, inquisitive, or in hunting mode. If the ears are also back, the cat is aggressive.
  • Straight out to the sides and spread out means a cat is relaxed and calm.

Whisker Fatigue

Because of how sensitive a cat’s whiskers are, if they repeatedly brush against an object, it causes sensory overload. This results in stress, otherwise known as whisker fatigue, and it’s why a water fountain that keeps their whiskers free is recommended over a bowl. 

If you notice your cat scooping food out of their bowl, they may be suffering from whisker fatigue, and it’s suggested you get a food bowl that’s large and low to the ground, so the whiskers can move freely.

Whisker Shedding

Whiskers do fall out on their own, typically very spaced out. 

If you happen to notice your cat shedding multiple whiskers, you’ll want to reach out to your vet to rule out allergies, acne, an infection, or even trauma. 

Make sure you never trim whiskers because your cat could become disoriented, confused, and even scared. Just let the whiskers shed on their own.



Sources

Meowingtons, 6 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Cat Whiskers.
Breyer, Melissa. Treehugger, 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Cat Whiskers.
Buzhardt, Lynn. VCA Hospitals, Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
Cat in the Box, Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
Purina, Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
Pets4Homes, Why Do Cats Have Whiskers on Their Front Legs?

 

Article by  🙋‍♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist