You may have heard before that cats use their whiskers in order to feel around and sense the world around them. Those who claim this are absolutely right! Though there isn’t much more to the story than this basic fact, it’s interesting to think about how cats would do this through their whiskers.
The Purpose of Cat Whiskers & What Cat Whiskers Are For
Understanding How Cats Sense With Whiskers
Have you ever gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to use the washroom, and stumbling around, realized it would be much easier to reach your arms out and feel for walls and objects than it would be to simply continue to hit into objects until you got to where you were going?
Kitty whiskers work much the same way as your arms would in that situation. They help cats know where objects are without the need for seeing these objects.
If you feel your way through the dark, you know there’s an object where your hand has touched, and thus you can move around it. Cats feel with their whiskers – though not quite in the same way of course. Their whiskers don’t have nerves like our hands do, so they can’t sense what their whiskers feel. Instead, they sense with the spots on their bodies that the whiskers connect to. They realize when their whiskers move that there is an object in that spot.
So Why Are Cat Whiskers Stiff, Hard, and Different from Regular Hair?
Whiskers most certainly are a lot harder, thicker, and firmer than any regular hairs we humans have or even by comparison to the other hairs (fur) that can be found on a cat’s body. That’s because in order for this whole sensing thing to work, the hairs that make up whiskers are better off being harder and firmer.
Why? Have you ever felt the wind brush up against your hair and thought there might be something behind you? Well if your hair was stiffer, the air wouldn’t move your hair as easily, and so you could easily distinguish between the wind blowing and an object touching your hair. Cats’ whiskers are definitely thick enough to help them notice the difference.
The Science Behind Whiskers
Remember how I said kitties can’t feel with the whiskers themselves, but that it’s the part of their body the whiskers are connected to that allow a kitty to feel? Well here’s the scientific breakdown of how the system works, in the words of Pet MD:
These longer, stiffer hairs [i.e. whiskers] — also called vibrissae — are embedded more deeply in the cat’s body than the shorter top-fur coat. The vibrissae are connected securely to the sensitive muscular and nervous systems, sending information about the surroundings directly to the cat’s sensory nerves, giving it a heightened sense of feeling and helping the cat to detect and respond to changes in its surroundings – sort of like kitty radar.
So the stiffer whisker hairs aren’t just sitting on top of a cat’s body in the same way cat fur is. They’re embedded much deeper, and connected to really sensitive muscles. When there is movement in the cat’s whiskers, the muscles sense this movement, and then pass the information through the nervous system all the way to their brain, letting the cat know immediately that there’s an object that has been touched. Just like a sort of kitty radar.
What would this feel like? Back to the example above! Imagine bumping into an object in the middle of the night with your right arm. You know something is there because your muscles sent a message through your nervous system to your brain which then determined, “I’ve hit something!”
Now imagine holding out two sticks – one in each hand – while walking through your home in the middle of the night. You can’t feel what those sticks “feel,” but you can sense with your hands when those sticks have hit something because you feel that the movement of the sticks in your hands. Those sticks are like kitty whiskers.
A cat’s whiskers are also roughly as long as your cat’s body. So you know that cute little thing your cat does: finding the perfect tight spaces to cram into? This is possible thanks to cat whiskers that allow your cat to know, just by feeling, whether he or she will likely be able to fit into a specific tight spot.
More Cat Whisker Facts
Where Do Cats Have Whiskers?
Cats don’t just have whiskers on their upper lips – just above their mouths on either side of their noses. Look closely on a cat and you’ll see some more whiskers even just on their face. Above their eyes – where our eyebrows usually sit – is an easy place to spot them. They also exist right under a cat’s jaw, like a little beard (look closely at the image above to see them).
Cats also have whiskers on the backs of their arms and legs as well (take a look at the picture below for a close up). There are kitty whiskers in a lot of places on a cat’s body!
What Happens If a Cat’s Whiskers Are Cut?
Heard that if you cut off a cat’s whiskers, the cat can get really disoriented and start clumsily bumping into things? Well this is absolutely right.
Imagine you used a specific sense to be able to walk around and not bump into things easily all the time, and then one day, out of the blue, that sense disappeared. You’d likely be very disoriented.
Maybe you’ve already experienced this before. Had an ear infection in one ear? Chances are you felt it was a little hard to keep your balance. You may have also felt like the room was spinning, thus getting very dizzy even though everything surrounding you was still. Well this disorientation was caused by the fact that you depended on your hearing in both ears to keep your balance before the ear infection. You may not have realized it, but you sure would notice something was off once you temporarily lost your hearing in one ear.
Now back to the example I used before. Imagine you always used sticks to feel your way around in the dark at night. Now imagine one day those sticks just disappeared. You’d be pretty disoriented. You’d definitely find it hard to find your way around the dark since what you previously relied on is gone. Yes, you could probably manage. After all, you still have your other senses. That being said, it would make life a lot harder. Essentially, this is what happens to a cat if his or her whiskers are cut.
Do a Cat’s Whiskers Grow Back?
Luckily, a cat’s whiskers do grow back, and so if one falls out (losing a whisker happens pretty often as we cat owners know!) or is cut, it’s not too much of a big deal in the long term. In the short term, however, if many whiskers go missing, there will likely be a lot more clumsiness, bumping into things, and even a few accidents. It takes a while for cats to grow back their whiskers, but eventually, like with the rest of their hair, whiskers do grow back.
Can I Trim My Cat’s Whiskers?
By now, you should be able to answer this question yourself. You should never cut a cat’s whiskers because they depend on them to feel around. So no, you shouldn’t be trimming or cutting them under any circumstance.
Have You Noticed Whiskers in Weird Places on Your Cat Before?
Did you already know that cats have whiskers in different spots on their face (besides just their upper lip)?
Did you know they had them on other parts of their body? Are you noticing whiskers on your cat that you never did before?
Let me know in the comments!