Click here to learn more.
Although cats and dogs clearly relish cleaning morsels of food off their whiskers, the long hairs have other purposes, from sensing things close to their face to communication.
When it comes to pet hair, whiskers are longer, thicker and more rigid, as well as more deeply embedded in the skin. Each whisker is rooted in a hair follicle that's filled with blood vessels and nerves. And like other hairs, whiskers will occasionally fall out and grow back.
Most cats have 12 whiskers that are arranged in four rows on either cheek, but the whisker pattern in dogs is more varied. Whiskers can also sprout above the eyes, as well as under the chin. Cats can also grow whiskers behind their wrists.
The primary function of whiskers is to aid with vision, especially in the dark, by providing additional sensory information — much like antennae on other creatures.
Although it's often called “tactile hair,” the whisker itself cannot feel anything. Instead, objects that brush up against a whisker cause it to vibrate, which then stimulates the nerves in the hair follicle. This explains why the scientific name for whiskers is vibrissae, which derives from the Latin word, vibrio, meaning “to vibrate.”
Cats use their facial whiskers to determine if they can fit into narrow spaces, and the whiskers on their legs may aid them in sensing prey or climbing trees.
Whiskers serve a similar purpose in dogs: Nearly 40 percent of the canine brain can detect when something touches a dog's face, especially the region where the whiskers are located.
Dogs and cats can also sense something even if it doesn’t actually touch a whisker. For example, a pet in a dark room can pick up on the fact that there's a wall nearby because of a change in air currents.
Some whiskers, especially those above the eyes, can also protect a pet from getting poked by long grasses and other objects.
The position of the whiskers can also clue you in to the mood of an animal. For example, felines may fold their whiskers back to say, “Stay away.”
Although it's an old wives' tale that cutting a pet’s whiskers off will affect his balance, it can compromise his ability to “feel” around his face. In other words, if you’re tempted to trim those unruly whiskers, it’s best to leave them alone.
For answers to other curious questions about animals, check out our other "What's the Deal With . . ." stories.
Like this article? Have a point of view to share? Let us know!
Thank You For Signing Up
for the Petwire newsletter, sending you all the pet news each week directly to your inbox.
Get the latest pet news, tips, tricks, and expert advice sent right to your inbox!
Sparky the dog's owner pulled him from an icy lake, and then the pup helped two men rescue his owner after she…
Ignoring your pup's bouncing and giving him something to carry in his mouth are a few simple ways to prevent…
Between the ages of 7 and 9, your cat is old enough to have some stable wisdom but still young enough for whimsical…
If you travel a lot or can’t afford a dog’s health care costs, maybe it’s not the right time to…
If your pup is tearing up the house while you’re gone, that could be a sign that she needs more physical…
The gentle, affectionate and sociable Selkirk Rex is a good traveler and excellent therapy cat.
If the video doesn't start playing momentarily,
please install the latest version of Flash.