The scientific name for a cat’s whiskers is ‘vibrissae’ which hints that whiskers are sensitive to vibrations in air currents. Their whiskers turn out to be be than just several long hairs growing on their face, they are an essential sensory mechanism. Damage or cut a cat’s whiskers and it will cause negative side effects.
Whiskers themselves are nothing more than thick long hairs, but their importance lies in the fact that they are deeply rooted in follicles which are surrounded by a muscle tissue that is very rich in nerves and sensory cells. These nerve cells in the roots are then connected to a special area of the cat’s brain.
Whiskers serve many functions, but their main function is a type of environmental scanning system that tells them a lot about their surroundings. Cats don’t actually need to touch the objects with their whiskers to detect the object. The nerves at the base of the whiskers are so sensitive that they can pick up small air movements which cause the whiskers to vibrate. They are so sensitive that cats can even pick up air movements indoors, such as air flowing around furniture, which lets the cat know there is something in its path even in the pitch dark. This is essential because they are far sighted and have trouble seeing things clearly close up. Being nocturnal by nature, this also helps them determine their environment more clearly at night while they hunt.
Cutting a cat’s whiskers should never, ever be done. It would be like taking away a human’s vision or sense of touch. Research has shown that cats without whiskers have trouble estimate the size of openings and can easily get stuck. Also, due to the fact that whiskers are important to a cat’s equilibrium, without them, they have trouble walking straight and have difficulty running. They also tend to get disoriented and fall. Experiments with cats that have had their whiskers cut short also struggle to judge distances accurately and will often misjudge jumping distances as well as occasionally run into things. As with other types of hair, whiskers will regrow as long as the follicle itself isn’t damaged.
# There is some evidence that whiskers somehow aid in helping cats detecting odors.
# Every cat’s whisker pattern is unique.
# In addition to the obvious whiskers in horizontal rows on the ‘whisker pad’ of their cheeks, there are also whiskers between the corner of a cat’s mouth and the outer corner of the nose, on the chin, and the eyebrows, and on the back of the front legs.
# A breed of cat called the ‘Sphinx’ often has little to no whiskers.
# Blind cats rely almost solely on their whiskers to navigate.
# Cats don’t have a true collar bone; this which allows them to twist their way through very narrow openings and whiskers aid in determining the width of the space they are in.
# Whiskers are two to three times thicker than regular cat hair and are found not only on either side of the muzzle (called mystacial whiskers), but on the jaw, above the eyes and on the back of the forelegs.
# There are usually about 12 mystacial whiskers, the longest, on each side of the muzzle (although some cat have more). Mystacial whiskers are connected to muscles that allow the cat to move them.
# whiskers are deeply embedded and connected to the nervous system. The tips are equipped with sensory organs called proprioceptors that help the cat determine an object’s distance, direction and even surface texture.
# If a cat is required to use a narrow food or water bowl, the pressure to its sensitive parts can cause what is known as “whisker stress.” If the cat scoops food out with a paw or knocks food on the floor to eat, its bowl is not big enough.
# Whiskers correspond to the width of its body; it uses them to know whether or not it can fit through narrow spaces.
# Whiskers on the back of the front legs help a cat in climbing and when the cat is in contact with prey; they help determine where to deliver the fatal bite.
# Whisker position indicates mood. Pulled back means it is scared or angry; relaxed whiskers mean a relaxed and happy cat. Whiskers pointed out front and tense generally mean the cat is feeling aggressive or is in hunting mode; the cat may also be curious if it is taking a reading of the environment.
# Some breeds have short, curly whiskers.
# A Maine coon cat in Finland holds the record for longest whiskers in the world; in 2005, Guinness World Records measured them at 7.5 inches long!
# Whiskers shed, but grow back.