Whiskers are long, thick, rigid hairs that are most often found on a dog or cat’s muzzle. However, they can also grow above the eyes, under the chin, and on cats, behind the wrists. Most cats have 12 whiskers that appear in rows on their cheeks; in dogs, whisker numbers and patterns tend to be more varied.
How important are whiskers to animals? Very important. In fact, nearly 40% of the area of a dog’s brain that registers touch information is dedicated to the face, especially the regions where the whiskers are located. But just what are whiskers, and how do they work? Let’s take a look.
What Are Whiskers?
Unlike a dog or cat’s normal hair, whiskers are long and stiff hairs that are deeply embedded in the skin -- about three times deeper than normal hair follicles. Each whisker is rooted in a hair follicle that is filled with blood vessels and at the base, bundles of nerves. This makes whiskers extremely sensitive to the environment and able to detect subtle movements and positions of objects and other living things.
While whiskers are tactile organs, the whisker itself cannot actually feel anything. Instead, air or objects that brush up against the whisker cause it to vibrate, which stimulates the nerves at the end of the hair follicles. This is why the scientific name for whiskers is which is derived from the Latin word, meaning “to vibrate.”
How Do Whiskers Help a Dog or Cat?
Whiskers are almost like dog or cat “radar,” and serve a number of important functions:
If you were to close your eyes and try to walk around, chances are you would hold out your fingers to feel for obstacles. In pets, whiskers serve the same function as extended fingers, but are much more sensitive. When your pet moves, air is stirred up and bounces off of surfaces. This “bouncing” air causes your pet’s whiskers to bend slightly, which lets your pet know to avoid an oncoming object (or in the case of prey, go after it!) Additionally, whiskers vibrate when they touch a surface, giving your pet information about the size and shape of the object.
This sensory information is especially useful in the dark, allowing pets to see and move around more safely.
As part of navigation, whiskers also help animals measure distance. For example, cats use their whiskers to determine if they can fit inside a narrow opening. Whiskers also help cats gauge the distance between objects they are leaping to and from, which explains why they seem to jump around so effortlessly.
Cats and dogs have difficulty focusing their eyes at close range, and whiskers protect their face by letting your pet know when they are approaching an object that could hurt them.
In addition to meowing, barking, tail gestures, ear movements, eye position, and body posture, whiskers also play a part in pet communication. When a pet is relaxed or content, their whiskers will be mostly immobile. If a pet becomes scared, their whiskers may bunch up and lie flat on the face. If they are excited or surprised, the whiskers may stand on end and appear to point forward.
Many groomers and pet parents end up trimming or shaving off their pet whiskers when they go in to clean up the face or give their pal a warm weather cut. However, this will not only cause your pet stress and discomfort, it can also reduce their ability to see and sense objects. Next time you take your pet in for a groom, let them know that your pet has important equipment on their face, and you’d like to keep it in tact!
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