Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
There are a few features in a cat that everyone knows and loves, including cat whiskers. Those stiff hairs on your cat’s face and legs don’t just add to their cuteness — they have real work to do.
Whiskers play an important part in helping your cats navigate the world. Whiskers are GPS and radar systems for your cat.
How Do Whiskers Work?
Because the cat whiskers play an important role in your cat’s life, it’s important to understand how whiskers work.
Each thick whisker is filled with tiny, supersensitive nerves that help your cat judge distance and space. It’s how they make decisions like: Is this box too small to get inside? How far do I need to jump to reach that counter? Will my head get stuck in the banister?
It’s also how they detect what’s around them.
Think about a human who is blind. They have a cane that helps them feel around to the world around them. That is the role of whiskers for cats. Even when they cat see.
But what that does mean is that cats who are blind can still navigate their surroundings well by using their whiskers to get a sense of where they are spatially.
Within the whiskers there are follicles. 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 at the tip of each whisker. This sensory picks up the vibrations from around the room and help the cats understand where they are.
In addition to showing their location, these vibrations can also help cats understand what and if there are other creatures around them.
Fun fact: did you know there are whiskers on the back of your cat’s leg? While the known whiskers on the nose, are used to help them understand how to squeeze into spaces.
Whiskers on the back of the legs help your cat climb trees.
What’s Your Cat’s Mood? Watch Their Whiskers
We have talked a lot about different tools you can use to understand how your cat is feeling. But I bet once thing you haven’t heard about a lot is that you can understand your cat’s mood by looking at their whiskers.
We already know the whiskers play an important role in understanding your cat’s space around you. But it’s also important to understand how those whiskers can tell different locations. That is done through a cat’s face. 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 they are feeling. When a cat is relaxed, their whiskers will remain still, sticking straight out from the side of their head.
When your cat is on the hunt, they will press their whiskers forward, sometimes just slightly. Cats that are nervous or upset will pin the whiskers back toward the face.
Pair this with your other knowledge of cats and you will be an expert at understanding how your cat is feeling.
Whiskers Don’t Need Trimming!
Like other hairs on a cat’s body, whiskers shed. That’s normal. But you should never trim them. Their whiskers will never grow to a length that is uncomfortable to them.
And cutting a cat’s whiskers can really hurt their sense of the space around them. It would be the equivalent to cutting a blind person’s cane down a few inches. But worse because there are new endings on a cat’s whiskers that help them understand the world around them.
“If you cut them, that’s like blindfolding someone, taking away one of their ways of identifying what’s in their environment,” says veterinarian Jane Brunt.