Felines possess many physiological attributes that give them their astounding athletic abilities. But one of their most prominent characteristic that all cats share that helps them maneuver gracefully is the whiskers. They have about 24 movable whiskers on their muzzle, twelve on either side of the nose, arranged in four rows in a pattern as individual as our fingerprints. There are also small groups of whiskers situated on other parts of the body as well: high on the outer edges of the cheeks, and above the eyes.
Shorter whiskers, also known as tylotrich, are specialized hair for sensation and are the large single hairs scattered over the skin and body acting like short whiskers. One example of where the tylotrich can be located are on the back of the front legs. There are many throughout the cat’s body but outside of the knowledge we have for whiskers, little is known about how these are used.
A common mistake people make is assuming that cat whiskers and human hair are alike. However, the facial whiskers, unlike human hair, are actually touch receptors and are twice as thick as the hair on its coat. They are also known as vibrissae, embedded more deeply in the cat’s body than the shorter top-fur coat, are connected to the sensitive muscular and nervous systems under the skin. Being connected to muscle, the whiskers can be moved backwards and forwards at will.
Whiskers have an endothelium-lined blood sinus between the inner and outer layers of the dermal portion of the follicle with a rich nerve supply. The sensory organ at the end of a whisker is called a proprioceptor. Therefore, they can send 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 a radar. Each whisker is allows a cat to sense even the smallest changes in the environment such as air currents, changes in air pressure, temperature, and wind direction.
It is generally believed that whiskers were evolved to help the animal enhance its ability to move accurately, even in the dark. After all, cat’s aren’t the only mammals equipped with whiskers. The sensitivity of the whiskers allow the species find food, hunt nocturnally, and navigate dark terrain when their predators were less active. For felines, whiskers fan forward as a cat pounces on prey, helping it judge where to deliver the killing bite. Furthermore, the whiskers found on their wrist joints assist them in placing their feet properly without looking.
The muzzle whiskers also help the cat determine whether she can fit through a small opening. Theoretically, the muzzle whiskers are about the same as the cat’s body width so if they can fit through an opening without bending then the cat should be able to squeeze through. When a cat pokes its head into an opening, it’s not only looking around in there, it is doing a whisker check to see if it can fit.
The only exception to this “natural ruler” is that it is not accurate with obese cats. Whiskers do not continue growing to follow the size of the feline. It is presumed that whisker lengths are genetically determined.
Whiskers serve another purpose besides acting as guidance, tracking, and radar systems – they also serve as a kind of barometer for the cat’s moods. When a cat is angry or feels defensive, the whiskers will be pulled back. If the whiskers start to bunch up and lay flat against the face, that may be a sign that the cat is scared.
Otherwise, when the cat is happy, curious or content, the whiskers will be more relaxed and pushed forward, remaining, for the most part, immobile. When playing “chase the toy” with a cat, its whiskers will point forward. This is its “game face,” a sign that your cat is in hunting mode. If excited or startled, every hair on its body will be standing on end, including the whiskers, which will point almost completely forward.
Another common mistake is presuming that cat whiskers should be trimmed. Some cats, like the Devon Rex, even have curly facial whiskers, so it might look like it wouldn’t be harmful to straighten them out with a little trim. However, grooming, trimming, or cutting off a cat’s whiskers is extremely dangerous. Without their tactile hairs, cats become very disoriented and frightened. In short, whiskers enable cats to gauge and make sense of their environment.
It is important to note that whiskers do shed and grow back naturally. However, they do not fall out all at the same time and a cat can easily adapt as it is a natural behavior. On the other hand, unnatural tampering of the whiskers can negatively affect a feline until the whiskers grow back.
Some Interesting Facts
- Felines can sweep whiskers forward to compensate for long-sightedness when pouncing and sweep whiskers backward to protect them in a fight.
- The breed of cat called the ‘Sphinx’ naturally has little to no whiskers.
- Interestingly, there is also some evidence to suggest that whiskers aid somehow in helping cats detecting odors.
- Like human fingerprints, every cat’s whisker pattern is unique.
- The word “whisker” dates to around 1600 and was originally a playful formation from the Middle English word “wisker” meaning anything that whisks or sweeps, like a broom.
- A Maine coon cat that lives in Finland named Fullmoon’s Miss American Pie (AKA “Missi”) holds the record for longest whiskers in the world; in 2005, Guinness World Records measured them at a whopping 7.5 inches long!
References + For More Reading
Smithsonian’s Answer Book: Cats by John Seidensticker
Eyewitness Companion: Cat by Dr. Bruce Fogle