Why Do Pets Have Whiskers?

Author: Alison Laurie-Chalmers, Senior Consultant, Crown Vets Inverness

Why do our pets have Whiskers? 

Whiskers are more than just long "hairs"; they are actually special, very necessary sensory organs. They aid with our pet's sense of touch, especially in the dark, by providing additional sensory information, like antennae do on other animals. Our pets, like us, bring together information from all their senses in order to interpret the world they are living in. One of these senses is touch, and these special sensory hairs, the whiskers on the face and muzzle are an important part of that sense of touch.  

Next time you feel something with your fingertips, you will be closer to understanding some of the functions of your pet’s sensitive whiskers. Whiskers are longer, thicker and much more rigid than normal hair and they are more deeply embedded in the skin. Each whisker is deeply rooted in a hair follicle that is supplied with blood vessels and nerves. Like other hairs, whiskers will occasionally fall out and grow back. 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 around the hair follicle. This explains why the scientific name for whiskers is "vibrissae", which derives from the Latin word, "vibrio", meaning “to vibrate.” 

So, when something touches an animal’s whiskers, just like with our sensitive fingertips, there is much more sensory information available. This is because underneath the skin, around the whiskers hair follicles are many more nerves than near the normal fur over the rest of the body. 

Most cats have 12 whiskers that are arranged in four rows on either cheek over their muzzle. Whiskers in cats can also sprout above the eyes, as well as underneath the chin. Cats can also grow whiskers behind their "wrists". The whisker pattern in different dog breeds is much more varied but they do usually have whiskers over their nose and muzzle.

So, whiskers are very important sensory tools for our pets. Cats especially tend to rely greatly on the information that they get from their whiskers. Cats depend on their whiskers to give them some of the knowledge about the balance and precision that they may need when they make long jumps or run fast past obstacles. Whiskers also help cats understand what the objects are around them and where they are located. Cats can also use their facial whiskers to determine if they can fit into narrow spaces. Also, the whiskers on their legs may aid them in sensing prey or when climbing trees.

Whiskers serve a similar purpose in dogs, nearly forty percent of the canine brain can detect when something touches a dog's face, especially in the region of the muzzle where their whiskers are located. Dogs and cats can also sense an object nearby, 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 against their whiskers. Some whiskers, especially those above the eyes, can also protect a pet from getting injured by long grasses and other objects around the face and eyes.

It seems as though dogs don’t tend to depend on their whiskers quite as much as cats do. Dogs were originally bred to guard and hunt, and therefore dogs rely heavily on their sight and smell senses to explore things. However, when dogs get up close to an object, the whiskers on their face do help them to be aware and sensitive to the structure of the object that they are inspecting.

The position of the whiskers can also give us some guide as to the moods of an animal. For example, cats may fold their whiskers back to say, “Stay away”!

Cutting off your pet’s whiskers may well compromise their ability to “feel” around their face and so compromising that additional sensing ability. Therefore, it is in your pet's best interests to leave their lovely whiskers well alone!