All mammals are equipped with facial whiskers, except for humans and monotremes (egg-laying predators that include the platypus and echidna). People have facial hair but, sadly, men cannot use their beards to detect movement and negotiate small spaces. Cats, on the other hand, use their fine, sleek whiskers to their advantage all the time.
Undoubtedly, people love the look of cat whiskers, but aside from their aesthetic qualities, they have functions beyond compare.
Cat whiskers are actually hairs, but they are 2-3 times thicker than regular body hair. Known as tactile hair, or vibrissae, cat whiskers are rooted deeper into the skin and are covered in with highly sensitive nerves.
As their names suggests, vibrissae “vibrate” with information taken in from the environment. They help cats pick up sensory input that escape their eyes, ears or nose. Not only essential during hunting, cat whiskers also alert them to possible threats.
Wait, There’s More
Cat whiskers are crucial in low lighting, acting like another pair of eyes. They help cats understand spatial awareness – if they enter a place that’s smaller than the width of the whiskers, they know it’s too tight.
The Great Communicator
The nerves that surround cat whiskers have a direct line to the feline brain. Information picked up by the proprioceptors (finely-attuned sensory organs located on the tips of whiskers) helps a cat learn about distance, direction, surface texture, subtle changes in air currents, and the shape, size, and speed of detected objects.
Strategically located on either side of the nose, above the eyes, on the bottom of the chin, and on the backs of their front legs, cat whiskers serve a feline’s understanding of the world and bolster their ability to navigate it.
Cat Whiskers and 9 Lives
Because of the freeway between the proprioceptors and the brain, cats gain remarkable skills at correcting themselves when threatened. When they are falling, cat whiskers (among other reflexes) can actually help cats position the body so they land on the feet.
Cat whiskers can also communicate a cat’s feelings or moods. When relaxed and sticking out sideways, they feel pretty good about life. However, watch out if you see cat whiskers pressed flat against the face. That means they are agitated or frightened. Likewise, whiskers that are held up and tensed, they are likely feeling curious about their surroundings.
We Love Cats!
If you have further questions about cat anatomy or feline behavior, please let us know. We love cats at Animal Kind Veterinary Hospital and look forward to helping you.