Your cat’s whiskers do much more than just look cute – they’re an important tool for helping them understand their environment.
You may have heard the term “the cat’s whiskers” used to describe something really great, and it’s an appropriate comparison. A feline’s facial whiskers are very clever accessories indeed.
A cat’s whiskers aren’t technically whiskers at all. They’re stiff, highly sensitive sensory hairs called vibrissae (which comes from the Latin word ‘vibrio’, meaning ‘to vibrate’), and they help cats to navigate the world around them.
Most mammals have whiskers, and biologists believe they evolved because their owners needed some sensory help after dark. Cats are known for their abilities as nocturnal hunters, but few people realise it’s actually their whiskers that make them such accomplished night-time prowlers.
A cat’s eight to 12 largest whiskers are neatly arranged in four rows on either side of its nose, and it has shorter ones above its eyes and on its ears, jaw and front legs.
Whiskers are a sensitive as human fingertips and function in much the same way as radar. At the root of each is a bundle of nerves that is stimulated whenever a whisker brushes against an object, sending important messages to the cat’s brain.
Whiskers are essentially touch receptors that provide information about the size, shape and speed of nearby objects. They’re a vital tool for spatial awareness – they’re roughly as long as the cat is wide, so they help to judge whether the cat can fit through openings.
They also help cats see in the dark because they vibrate in response to moving air currents, alerting the cat to the location of prey or the approach of potential predator (or, as is more likely for most pet cats, they help to guide them to the comfiest snoozing spot).
Evidence also suggests that whiskers help a cat express its mood. Taut whiskers pulled back across the face may indicate it’s feeling threatened, while relaxed whiskers pointing away from the face are a sign of a content kitty.
Cats’ whiskers shed and grow back naturally. You should never trim, pluck or otherwise remove your cat’s whiskers, as this can cause significant discomfort and affect your cat’s spatial awareness. Cats need their whiskers to make sense of their environment, and can become disoriented and frightened if their “navigation equipment” is removed.