Beyond their obvious cute-factor, why do cats have whiskers? If you think they’re just for show, think again. This adorable face-framing feature actually serves a functional purpose. A few, in fact!
Aside from tickling your face during snuggle time, your cat’s whiskers perform some pretty impressive tasks. From helping him navigate in the dark to making important judgment calls—like whether or not squeezing behind the couch is a good idea—your cat’s whiskers are an incredibly useful tool.
Let’s take a closer look at this wonderfully feline characteristic.
Think of your cat’s whiskers as his own built-in radar system. These long, stiff hairs are one of your cat’s primary tools for understanding and assessing his environment. Kind of like an insect’s antennae (albeit, much cuter).
How does a bit of facial hair accomplish this?
It boils down to some basic feline anatomy lessons. A cat’s whiskers are rooted deeply in his skin—around three times deeper than the rest of his hair. These deep follicles are filled with nerves and blood vessels, making whiskers extra sensitive.
Strategically located on either side of his nose, and along his chin, eyes, ears, and wrists, your cat’s whiskers gather critical information about his surroundings. Whiskers are so attuned to your cat’s environment that they’re able to detect nearby objects just by sensing a subtle change in air currents. This incredible sensitivity is what helps your cat navigate his way through a crowded room in complete darkness without bumping into things.
Whiskers also respond to vibrations in the air (hence their scientific name, “vibrissae”). Vetstreet explains that when an object comes into contact with a whisker, the whisker will vibrate, sending signals to the nerves in its root.
Whiskers are also a major asset when it comes to hunting because they can pick up any sudden movements by nearby prey. By mapping out his surroundings, detecting motion, and gauging his distance from things, your cat’s whiskers make hunting in the dark a breeze.
You may have noticed that your cat’s facial whiskers are about as wide as his body. Your cat uses his whiskers as a natural measuring tape—by poking his head into narrow entrances, they help him judge whether or not the rest of his body will fit.
As an extrasensory tool, whiskers help your cat make safe decisions—like whether or not to attempt a daring leap onto a table. His whisker’s ability to gauge distance becomes pretty handy when your cat is contemplating making a risky jump.
What about the whiskers on the back of your cat’s front legs? It’s likely you’ve never noticed these long hairs protruding from your cat’s forearms. These carpal whiskers are essential for cats on the hunt. Since cats have difficulty seeing things as close range, the whiskers on his wrists help him sense any movement from prey trapped under his paws.
Did you know that your cat’s whiskers aren’t stationary? According to WebMD, these rigid hairs are connected to intricate facial muscles, which allow them to move into different positions. The way your cat arranges his whiskers isn’t random—it’s a telltale sign of his current mood.
In his natural, relaxed state, your cat’s whiskers will stand straight out from either side of his face. A nervous cat, on the other hand, will pull his whiskers up against his face. And a cat who is stalking her prey—or a favorite catnip-filled toy—will have whiskers that are bent slightly forward.
Of course, plenty of other animals come equipped with whiskers. And just as they do with cats, whiskers function as natural motion detectors, making it possible for hungry predators to spot dinner at nighttime.
Why did mammals develop whiskers? Biologists believe the earliest mammals who lived alongside the dinosaurs needed extra receptors to sense their environment—their very survival depended on it. According to Live Science, these creatures adapted their hunting schedule to avoid giant predators who were most active during the daytime. Whiskers were the perfect solution for mammals who needed some help navigating and hunting at night.
Occasionally, your cat’s whiskers will fall out, and a replacement hair will grow in its place. While this natural shedding is perfectly ok, taking a pair of scissors to your cat’s muzzle is never a good idea.
As we’ve learned, whiskers serve an important role in the way your cat understands his world and how he makes decisions. A cat who’s had his whiskers removed can become disoriented and frightened. Please, don’t rob your kitty of these fundamental sensors.
Your cat’s whiskers are an indispensable part of what makes him feline: they act as a sort of night vision, making him the agile and coordinated hunter that he is. Plus, ok: they’re totally adorable.