Click here to learn more.
Vetstreet. All rights reserved.
Vetstreet does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. See Additional Information ›
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 subscribing to Petwire. Look for the latest newsletter each Wednesday.
Two men who were out fishing on an
Alabama river were shocked to discover
two kittens swimming toward their boat.
After more than 30 years as a practicing
veterinarian, Dr. Marty Becker names the
breeds likely to live lengthy…
Nervous about going back to class?
Boo, Corgnelius and even Grumpy Cat
share how to do back-to-school right.
When your cat reaches senior status, you
may notice changes in her behavior,
health, appetite and activity level.
Sloppy grooming, a higher-pitched meow and more wakefulness at night could mean it’s time to see the veterinarian.
Known for his excellent rat-hunting
abilities, the Li Hua is an intelligent and
agile breed who hails from China.
Take our breed quiz to find your next pet.
If the video doesn't start playing momentarily,
please install the latest version of Flash.
Thank you for subscribing.