Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
Those stiff hairs on your cat’s face and legs don’t just add to her cuteness — they have real work to do. Whiskers are GPS and radar systems for your cat.
“They are a powerful and important part of how a cat senses the world,” said W. Mark Cousins, DVM, founder of a veterinary clinic in New Orleans.
Each thick whisker is filled with tiny, supersensitive nerves that help your cat judge distance and space. It’s how she makes decisions like: Is this box too small to get inside? How far do I need to jump to reach that counter?
It’s also how she detects what’s around her.
“Cats that are blind can navigate rooms very well by just walking around and letting their whiskers get a sense of where they are spatially,” Cousins said.
The follicles – the sacs that hold the hairs – are deep, with lots of nerve endings that send messages to the cat’s brain. There’s also a sensory organ at the tip of each whisker. It picks up vibrations in the environment that help the cat sense where she is and what other creatures are around her.
Most whiskers are rooted in the thick pads on the upper lip, but smaller sets are in the eyebrow area, along the chin and near the feet. The whiskers above the eyes help when the cat is hunting in grass or bushy areas. They trigger a protective eye blink if there’s a branch or some brush that might get into the cat’s eyes. The whiskers also help during contact with other animals (including us) and if touched, they cause an eye blink.
The ones on the sides of the nose are the same width as your cat’s body; they help her figure out whether a space is wide enough to squeeze through. On the muzzle, there are four rows of whiskers on each side. The top two rows can move independently from the bottom two rows.
Whiskers on the back of the legs help your cat climb trees. The carpal whiskers, located on the underside of the cat’s wrist are very useful in hunting. When the cat has prey captured in her paws, the carpal whiskers help determine if there’s any movement. Since cats can’t see as well up close, the carpal whiskers also help determine the position of the prey.
What’s your cat’s mood? Watch her whiskers. A complex set of muscles on the face moves whiskers back and forth.
The way a cat arranges them will tell another animal – or us humans – how she’s feeling. When a cat is relaxed, her whiskers will remain still, sticking straight out from the side of her head. If she is curious or is on the hunt, she’ll press them slightly forward. Cats that are nervous or upset will pin the whiskers back toward the face.
Whiskers don’t need trimming! Like other hairs on a cat’s body, whiskers shed. That’s normal. But you should never trim them. A cat with cut whiskers will become disoriented and scared.
“If you cut them, that’s like blindfolding someone, taking away one of their ways of identifying what’s in their environment,” veterinarian Jane Brunt said.
The whiskers also make it pretty easy to tell when a cat is startled or excited, because every hair on its body will be standing on end, including the whiskers, which will point almost completely forward.
Whiskers are a vital part of a cat’s mobility and sense of security. Without whiskers, cats would not be able to achieve the great acrobatic feats that are so awe-inspiring, or protect themselves from dangerous situations.