One of the most prominent and striking features on any cat are his or her long and plentiful whiskers. Aside from being receptacles for leftover food, or tickling our faces in the middle of the night, cat whiskers serve several important functions for our feline friends.
What Are Cat Whiskers Anyway?
Unlike fur or human hair, cat whiskers are actually touch receptors. Whiskers are deeply rooted in the skin and have a plentiful blood supply and lots of nerves. Cats generally have 12 whiskers situated in four rows on either cheek, but whiskers can also grow above the eyes, under the chin, and even behind the wrists.
Whiskers are also known as vibrissae or tactile hairs, and are considered sensory organs. The whisker itself can’t feel anything, but the vibrations that occur as objects brush up against it stimulate nerves located in the follicles.
The main purpose of whiskers is to help a cat see in the dark. No, whiskers don’t have eyes, but they can help kitty navigate in a dark environment. Cat whiskers are sensitive enough to detect subtle changes in air currents, which can help them to avoid bumping into objects and may keep them abreast of a prey’s swift movements.
Whiskers are also useful when it comes to fitting into those tight spaces that cats love so much. Using only the whiskers, a cat can determine whether or not he or she can fit into a space without even being able to see it!
Like Goggles, only Better!
Whiskers above the eyes and on the muzzle come in handy when a wild cat is hunting in tall grass or brush. The lightest touch of a blade of grass or other object triggers a protective eye blink. Whiskers also come in handy during contact with other animals (you may have noticed kitty’s blinks if you get too close to his or her face).
For communicating information about a cat’s mood, whiskers can’t be beat! You may notice your cat’s whiskers hanging loosely on either side when he or she is relaxed. When frightened or angry, the whiskers will be flattened against the sides of the face (probably to protect them from being damaged). During a hunt or playtime, a cat’s whiskers are generally forward facing, as this gives them the best chance of detecting the whereabouts and movement of prey.
Leave ‘em Alone
If you’re ever tempted to groom or trim your cat’s whiskers, don’t. Whiskers are your cat’s windows to the world, and without their full function a cat may become disoriented or frightened. The occasional whisker will fall out and grow back, however, and should not be cause for concern.
Without whiskers, cats would not be able to silently stalk their prey, leap from the ground to a narrow ledge, or perform any of the other amazing feats that cat owners witness on a daily basis. Cat whiskers are truly one of nature’s greatest achievements!