What’s up with those kitty whiskers?

cat whiskers

By Sandie Lee

Why DO cats have whiskers, anyway? Sure, they’re great for tickling your nose early in the morning when you’d rather be sleeping, but those long thick strands of hair (also known as vibrissae or tactile hairs), found on your cat’s face and on the back of its front legs (above the paws) serve some other [also very important] purposes.

They’re great navigational aids. Have you ever tried to make your way around a dark room? It’s tricky, isn’t it? Well, instead of bumping into things like us clumsy humans, a cat uses its whiskers to navigate dark areas.The whiskers allow cats to detect changes in air currents, which in turn keeps the animal from smacking into that bookshelf or footstool. Cats also use their whiskers to hunt, because they can detect the air currents around its prey.

If the whiskers fit… If you’ve noticed your cat poking her head through an opening and pausing, she’s doing more than just checking out what’s inside – she’sactually gauging if she’ll fit without getting stuck.

The whiskers on a cat’s muzzle are approximately the same length as the cat’s width (this may not apply to overweight cats). So if the whiskers fit into that opening without bending, then the cat knows it’s safe to proceed. 

Whisker fun fact: a cat’s muzzle has four rows of whiskers on each side. The two top rows can move independently of the bottom two rows.

They protect the eyes. When a cat is out in the tall grass or an area with lots of brush, the whiskers above the eyes serve as an automatic blinking trigger. If a foreign object touches these top whiskers, it immediately makes the cat blink. This serves to protect the eyes from debris or punctures.

Wait – cats have whiskers on their legs? We’ve already learned the cat’s muzzle-whiskers can detect the shift in air currents when hunting prey, but did you know the carpal whiskers (located just above the cat’s wrists on the front legs) also help it when hunting?

When a cat has its prey captured between its front paws, the carpal whiskers help her determine movement and which direction the animal is facing. Once the cat has this information, it can make an accurate killing bite.

They’re mood detectors. Don’t wait for kitty to give you a good swat to find out she’s in a bad mood – just take a look at her whiskers!

Loosely hanging whiskers mean “I’m relaxed.” A battle-ready or frightened cat’s whiskers will lie flat against the face to prevent damage, while forward-facing whiskers mean that the cat is in hunting mode.

However, don’t rely just on the whiskers before going in for a cuddle; be sure to read your cat’s other body language signs to help determine its mood or availability for some quality snuggle time.

No touching! Never cut or tamper with a cat’s whiskers. This will not only cause disorientation, but also fear, stress, and even pain due to their extreme sensitivity.

Now that you know how important whiskers are, take notice of all the ways your cat uses them. Whether he’s hunting, making his way through a dark room, or just telling you how much he loves your company, those whiskers are as much a part of your cat’s makeup as his endearing purr.

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sandie-lee-writerSandie Lee has been in the writing industry for over 20 years. She hails from a small city in Ontario, Canada where there are two seasons; winter and not winter! Her husband and two furbabies, Milo and Harry, make sure she is diligently writing each day.

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