While whiskers undeniably play a critical role in enhancing a kitty’s cute appearance, these hairs are in fact some of the most important sensory tools a cat possesses. Imagine a GPS, radar, and surveillance camera all merged into one – this is what the whisker does for our feline companions!
What are whiskers?
Whiskers are not the same as the hair that grows out of your scalp! While human hair is made of dead cells and keratin protein, whiskers are a special type of hair known as ‘vibrissae’. They are long, stiff, and grow on either side of a cat’s mouth; as well as on their ears, jaw, and behind their front legs.
Whiskers lie deeper into the skin than ordinary hairs and are attached to muscles that initiate twitching movements. Owing to a rich blood supply, and a high concentration of nerves, each individual whisker is highly sensitive; serving as an important sensory organ. In fact, whiskers are as sensitive as human fingertips!
Why does my cat need whiskers?
Whiskers are very important to the cat, as it helps them navigate challenging environments, even in the dark! As a cat moves, objects which brush against the whiskers cause small vibrations in the hair. This sends a signal down the whisker, through the surrounding nerves, and to the cat’s brain. It uses these vibrations to interpret the object’s size and texture.
The whiskers are so incredibly sensitive, that even the vibrations within the air can provide information on a cat’s surroundings. This alerts them to any approaching predators or other forms of danger. These subtle signals allow cats to know exactly where they are in a space and move safely through it with precision. It’s like having an extra pair of eyes, ears, and hands!
True or false: whiskers help the cat work out if it can fit a tight space
True! The whiskers on a cat’s face generally grow to approximately the same width as its body, allowing the cat to gauge whether or not it can fit through a tight space. If it can fit its face and whiskers comfortably in a space, then the rest of the body follows! It is like having a handy tape measure, on your face.
How to read emotions
Cats may move or position their whiskers as part of their social behaviour, using them to communicate. A cat with relaxed whiskers pointing out sideways is happy and content, while the whiskers will be pushed forward when a cat is alert and interested. Be cautious if the cat has its whiskers pulled up flat against its face. This is a fearful or aggressive cat, and you may be a whisker away from some unwanted scratches!
Are my cat’s whiskers too long?
A cat’s whiskers are as long as they need to be. Some larger breeds may have longer whiskers than others. If a whisker grows too long, it should naturally fall off – it is normal to find the odd whisker when vacuuming!
It is important not to trim or cut a cat’s whiskers. As described above, cats rely on whiskers as a crucial sensory aid to gain information about their surroundings. Cutting a cat’s sensitive whiskers will strip its ability to move around safely, and may cause anxiety, stress or injuries. It would be the equivalent of suddenly having to go about your life with a blindfold on and earplugs in.
If you have concerns about your cat’s whiskers being abnormally long, if it appears damaged, or seems to be falling out at an unusually high rate, please seek the advice of a veterinarian!
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