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At first glance, you might chalk a cat’s whiskers up to long, thick fur.
But although whiskers are made of the keratin, the same protein as fur, they are much thicker and have deeper roots in the skin, along with many more nerves, says Samantha Morici, DVM, Head of Veterinary Services at Koala Health. The higher blood and nerve supply to the root of the whiskers allow them to provide sensory information to cats, Morici explains.
These whiskers are called vibrissae, which means to vibrate—and you might, in fact, notice them twitching or quivering from time to time. While they’re typically white, they can darken to black as your cat grows older.
Cats have whiskers because whiskers help them navigate and interact with their surroundings. They also help your cat communicate. In short, while cat whiskers may look adorable, they also serve important purposes, which we’ll cover below.
Reasons Why Cats Have Whiskers
Both wild and domestic cats have whiskers, but their exact number and pattern can differ from breed to breed and between species.
Cats use their whiskers in five main ways.
Whiskers help cats land on their feet
At the end of each whisker is a sensory receptor called a proprioceptor. One of the proprioceptor’s jobs is to send the brain information about the position of the body and limbs, which helps cats right themselves.
Maybe you’ve heard the saying “Cats almost always land on their feet“—that refers to the righting reflex, which cats master at about nine weeks of age, according to Stephen Quandt, CFTBS, founder of Cat Behavior Help.
During a fall, proprioceptors help cats reposition themselves by signaling when to twist their flexible spines and guiding their feet toward the ground.
The righting reflex is different from everyday balance. Your cat may have a harder time landing on their feet after a fall if their whiskers are cut or damaged, but they won’t be off balance. Balance is controlled by nerves in the inner ear, not by whiskers, Morici says.
Whiskers help cats see
Cats’ eyes are specialized for detecting motion in low-light conditions, which leaves their daytime sight below average. “They also tend to be nearsighted,” says Dr. Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior expert and consultant at Feline Minds.
Rather than relying on sight alone, cats use their whiskers to detect vibrations and changes in air currents. Cats can even use their carpal (wrist) proprioceptors to gather clues about a prey’s texture when they can’t clearly see what’s underneath their paw.
Whiskers act as built-in rulers
Whiskers also function as miniature measuring tapes that vibrate and transmit signals to a cat’s brain. When cats poke their heads into narrow spaces, they use their whiskers to judge whether the rest of their body will fit through. That’s why a cat’s facial whiskers are approximately as wide as their body.
Your cat can also use their whiskers to gauge distance, which makes it easier for them to make risky jumps.
Whiskers protect your cat’s eyes
The whiskers above your cat’s eyes help shield their eyes from foreign objects like blades of grass when they’re on the prowl. They’re highly sensitive and can detect even the slightest movements, like drifting specks of dust. This allows your cat to shake away particles before they enter their eyes, similar to how our eyelashes work.
Whiskers communicate emotions
The whiskers that dot a cat’s muzzle are known as mystical whiskers, and their movement is controlled by muscular contractions. Individual whiskers can’t move independently, but the ones on the right side of the muzzle can move independently of the ones on the left.
- Fearful: Their whiskers flatten or press downward onto their face.
- Calm: Their whiskers relax, with the tips bent slightly forward into their line of sight.
- Aggressive: Their whiskers point out from their face.
Just keep in mind these are suggested meanings, not necessarily definitive ones.
Whiskers can also communicate pain. According to the Feline Grimace Scale, a curved or straight position may suggest mild to moderate pain. Straight whiskers that move forward, on the other hand, could mean your cat is experiencing moderate to severe pain.
How Many Whiskers Do Cats Have?
The exact number of whiskers varies by breed. Most cats have about 24 on their muzzle, with 12 on each side. The growth pattern on one side of the face will match the other side.
Cats also have whiskers:
- Above their eyes (superciliary whiskers)
- On the tip of their chin (mandibular whiskers)
- On the underside of their wrists (carpal whiskers)
Each whisker type has a unique purpose, but they all help cats interact with the surrounding environment.
How Long or Short Are Cat Whiskers?
This may make sense, when you think about it, since cats rely on their whiskers to determine whether they can fit into small spaces. The whiskers on their face need to be as wide as their head.
If your cat gains weight, however, their whiskers won’t grow longer to match their bigger body size—which is why your “chonky” cat may still think they can fit through narrow spaces.
When it comes to the shortest whiskers, the Sphynx usually has no whiskers at all or very short, brittle ones. As Sphynx cats tend to have a harder time fitting into small spaces, it’s best to keep them safe inside.
Why Do Cats’ Whiskers Fall Out?
While it’s nice for a cat to have a face full of whiskers, you might notice that cats also shed them eventually. “Similar to regular hair or fur, whiskers go through a natural growth cycle,” Morici explains. They’ll typically fall out one or two at a time and grow back.
Cats may also lose their whiskers due to:
- Stress. Things that cause stress in cats may include moving or changes within your household, like a new family member or pet. Focusing on helping your cat feel safe and secure can help them get back to their happy place.
- Cat acne. Cat acne most commonly shows up among hair follicles under the chin and around the lips. Without treatment, cat acne could lead to secondary infections.
- Infection. Bacterial or fungal infections may also cause whiskers to fall out. Fungal ringworm, a common infection in cats, can often cause hair and whisker loss.
- Allergies. Feline food, environmental, flea, or contact allergies can cause allergies in cats, which may lead to skin irritation—and, in some cases, whisker loss. Your veterinarian can help identify allergens and work with you to develop a plan to ease your cat’s allergy symptoms.
- Injury. Extreme heat, a cat fight, or infections are examples of things that may damage your cat’s whiskers. If the injury affects the hair follicle, the whisker could fall out—but don’t worry, it will grow back!
If your cat shows signs of skin irritation or other health concerns, call your veterinarian for care. They can prescribe oral or topical medication for an infection.
How Long Does It Take for Cat Whiskers To Grow Back?
As long as the root of the whisker isn’t damaged, it should grow back on its own, Morici says.
New whiskers might surface within a week to 11 days after the shedding or loss of the previous whisker. That said, it can take several weeks for them to reach a functional length again.
Growth rate studies of whiskers are limited, but research involving rodents suggests mice whiskers grow about 1 millimeter (mm) a day, while rat whiskers grow about 1.5 mm a day.
Should You Trim Your Cat’s Whiskers?
Vets don’t recommend cutting or plucking your cat’s whiskers. Cutting a cat’s whiskers won’t hurt them, but plucking a whisker from the follicle can cause pain.
Trimming whiskers removes their sensory receptors, and this makes it harder for cats to explore their surroundings safely and confidently. Sometimes, a queen (mama cat) will trim their kittens’ whiskers. One theory suggests they do this to prevent young kittens from venturing too far from the nesting box.
What happens if you cut off a cat’s whiskers?
If you’ve trimmed your cat’s whiskers, they may be more hesitant to jump. They may also bump into things more often, especially in the dark.
What Is Whisker Fatigue?
“Given the strong nervous supply of the whiskers, rubbing over them may prove overstimulating and bothersome,” Morici says. So, when petting or cuddling your cat, try to touch the whiskers gently and with a full stroke to the rest of their body.
Some experts believe cats with whisker fatigue may eat less or drop food while eating. Others have theorized that cats who only eat from the center of their bowl do so to avoid whisker fatigue.
What food and water bowls are best to help whisker fatigue?
One solution to help prevent whisker fatigue involves swapping your cat’s dishes for wide, shallow ones that accommodate their long whiskers.
Wide elevated bowls may help your cat eat and drink more comfortably in a standing position, so they don’t need to crouch.
Are Cat Whiskers Good Luck?
Your cat’s genetics determine the length of their whiskers, so you can rest assured they’re the exact length they should be: neither too long nor too short.
Shed whiskers will grow back, so there’s no need to worry if you find a stray. But if you do happen to find a whisker on the rug, make sure to pick it up—some people consider collecting cat whiskers a way to bring good luck.