If you’ve ever spent time just watching your cat, you may have noticed how often your cat moves her whiskers. You might have wondered, what exactly is all that whisker wiggling about? What do whiskers do for a cat?
A cat’s whiskers or vibrissae are located in horizontal rows on either side of a cat’s face above his mouth. Other groups of whiskers are located above the eyes, on the cheeks, and the back of the front legs. As you’ve probably noticed, whiskers are much thicker than regular hair. They are attached to a tremendous number of nerves, and can move backwards and forwards.
Whiskers are sensitive to air current vibrations and help a cat navigate his world. The only thing mildly similar in humans is our fingertips. For example, when you go out sailing, you might have licked your finger and held it up in the air to determine which way the wind was blowing. In somewhat the same way, a cat can go into a dark room and tell what is in the room based on the air currents hitting his whiskers. This ability not only keeps him from bumping into furniture, but also means he can pounce on a mouse with lightning speed and accuracy, even when he can’t really see the mouse.
Your cat also uses his whiskers to determine if he can fit through an opening. The whiskers are roughly the same width of the cat, so he can put his head in a small area and determine if the rest will follow. Interestingly, if you cat gets overly chubby, he loses this ability, since the whisker length is determined by genetics, not by how fat the cat is.
In addition to being useful to the cat, whiskers can also be useful to you. A cat that has his whiskers pulled back against his face, is feeling angry or defensive. If he’s stalking or aggressive, the whiskers will be forward and tense. A cat with relaxed whiskers facing forward and down is happy and content.
It probably also comes as no surprise that most cats don’t like to have their whiskers touched. These delicate sensory organs are extremely sensitive and if you touch them, the cat will blink. And it should go without saying that you should never cut a cat’s whiskers. They aren’t hair, and cutting them is just plain cruel.
The next time you see your cat wander by, watch those wiggling whiskers and marvel at how much information they give your cat every second of every day. Whiskers aren’t just cute, they are a vital part of your cat’s sensory perception.