The whiskers act like your cat’s radar, compass and sonar and they’re called “vibrissa” for a single whisker and “vibrissae” for multiple. The small sacs (follicles) that hold the whiskers have audiovisual sensory receptors which are these thick little (or big) tactile nerve ninjas deep within your cats body (not like their fur) that follow a path to the spatial processing hub of the brain.
These receptors will alert the cat of danger or if the cat will fit in certain crevices (without having to see) trying to chase it’s prey.
Much like how we extend our arms around when in a dark room trying to feel our way… a cats whiskers do the same.
Fun Fact: The word “whisker” dates back to the 1600s originally connected to the meaning of “anything that whisks or sweeps” [source]. This was also referenced to all the hair on a man’s face and animal lip hair (the 1670’s).
How Many Whiskers Does A Cat Have?
For the main ones, on either side of a cats nose (the muzzle or called the snout) is 12 whiskers or normally 24 in total.
There’re 4 rows on each side where the top 2 rows can move on their own from the bottom.
These allow for that graceful jumping, judging distances, space, and perception. Ever notice how a cats head is so still when jumping or about to pounce? Now you know! (the whiskers)
If you ever notice a cat wondering or stumbling (take to a vet first) but I am guessing something is going on with those whiskers.
Are there more?
Yes! Maybe 30 or so in all.
There are also shorter vibrissae above each of the eyes (called superciliary whiskers), seated in the thick pads on the upper lip, a bit back on the cheek line (called genal whiskers) at the corners of the mouth, on the chin (or jaw called mandibular) and even some on the back of the front legs a bit above the paws (also called the carpal whiskers).
Via A Source from Wikipedia:
Many land mammals, including domestic cats, also have carpal (of the wrist) vibrissae on the underside of the leg just above the paws. – Frank E. Beddard M. A., F.R.S. – Journal Of Zoology
What do cats use their whiskers for?
This Slideshare below is a great visual way to see the various uses of each area where the whiskers are set:
Why Are My Cats Whiskers So Long?
To make sure cats can identify openings that are wide enough for their entire body to pass through. This way they can escape any danger by going through an opening that is too small for their predator to pass through or vice versa.
They should extend past the width of your cat.
Seeing how cats have no shoulders, they can pass through some very small openings!
The record for longest whiskers on a cat goes to Missi, “Fullmoon’s Miss American Pie” clocking in at 19 cm (7.5 in). She lives with her owner, Kaija Kyllönen. Guinness Book Of World Records measured the cat whiskers in Iisvesi, Finland on 22 December 2005.
Let’s talk about why your cat’s whiskers are so long, how they work, and what you should never do to them.
A common misconception of the whisker is that it’s just a long and thicker hair.
There’s a lot more going on in that whisker than just being along “hair.”
First, as stated before, whiskers are embedded much deeper into your cat’s skin than ordinary fur.
Not only that, they’re attached to the muscular (Mystacial whiskers)/nervous system and are surrounded by a more generous supply of blood and smaller nerves.
Your cat doesn’t even need the whiskers to touch something to know its location.
The ends of the whiskers contain a sensory organ called the “proprioceptor” which alerts your feline to even the tiniest change in her environment. (Basically, cats can “see” and determine an object’s distance, surface texture, and even direction.)
When I say, tiniest, I mean their whisker so sensitive they can detect even the slightest changes in the air currents. (or eddies in the air)
Which is super important when they are having a night out on the town. Air pressure does change when it’s near or hits a solid object like walls, furniture, cars etc.
So, any obstacles that are out there, those whiskers will inform them and allow them to move around in the dark so easily.
Wonder how those outdoor or alley cats hunt?
Using their whiskers! Especially the ones above those cat eyes (and on an underside of their wrist), as they act as a second set of eyes when they are hunting in bushy or grassy areas.
Also, any contact with other animals (and us humans), just being touched, branches, blades of grass or brush might trigger their eyes to blink as a protective mechanism.
Both whiskers above the eyes and wrist not only allow a cat to know exactly where to make that kill bite but also help determine the position of the prey. They can wrap their whiskers around their prey which will alert them if they begin to move or try to get away.
What Do Whiskers Do?
Like summarized above, whiskers and their attached proprioceptor organs operate like a kitty radar.
Your cat needs this radar-like system because all cats are naturally far-sighted.
Felines have trouble seeing things close up.
In fact, the vibrissae-proprioceptor combination is a highly-developed sensory system common to all of the animal family Felis – Felidae to which domesticated cats belong.
Without those long and short whiskers, your cat would not be able to:
- Navigate through the darkness.
- Accurately gauge distance.
- Jump gracefully and land accurately.
- Maintain balance.
- Land on his or her feed when falling.
- Fit through an opening without the need to see it.
- Detect a mouse or insect and catch it.
Whiskers allow even blind cats to find their way without walking into things.
Blind cats navigate entirely through the tactile feedback through their whiskers. The sensitivity of whiskers to air currents is one reason why cats sometimes seem to stare at invisible things.
Your cat really isn’t seeing “poster-mice” or other unseen creatures. He or she is just focusing on air currents that are setting off the whisker radar, trying to detect what’s causing the air to move.
What Are Cat Whiskers Made Of?
They are made of a rough and tough colorless protein called keratin.
As a strengthening agent, and even though it’s dead, in the skin it’s very much alive/growing.
Each hair (or whisker) is a long line of cells very similar to skin cells, formed inside a pocket called a follicle. As the hair grows the cells get stacked up and pushed out through the skin. These cells pick up a supply of keratin which eventually dries and hardens as the cells die. Whiskers are simply thicker stronger hairs. – ChienWorks.com
Do NOT Trim a Cat’s Whiskers
Imagine losing your ability to feel with your fingertips.
This is what happens if you trim or cut your cat’s whiskers.
One of the points mentioned in our 55 Ways to Keep Your Cat Happy post is that whiskers should generally be left alone!
“If you cut them, that’s like blindfolding someone, taking away one of their ways of identifying what’s in their environment,” Dr. Jane Brunt, DVM
The vibrissae need to stay intact so our feline friend doesn’t become disorientated and in turn, frightened.
This is just as true for those curly whiskers found on breeds like the Devon Rex as it is for the straight, long whiskers of the Maine Coon. Your cat’s whiskers are never too long!
They are long for a reason.
Keep them intact or you may “blind” your cat’s senses.
Does Cutting A Cat’s Whiskers Hurt?
Whiskers can’t feel anything, it’s literally a form/type of hair. Just like when we get our hair cut, we don’t feel a thing.
The image above is my cat, Foo Foo. He has a brother that grooms him and likes to bite off his whiskers above his eyes. Check out how short they are! They grow back, don’t worry.
Instead, anything that touches a whisker makes it vibrate. At that point, a trigger happens and the nerves within the hair follicle sends those vital messages to the kitty brain.
Hence, the scientific name of vibrissae – derived from “vibrio” (the Latin word), which means “to vibrate”.
However, if you yank or pull a whisker out, it will hurt like crazy for your cat! Understand, that the follicle is connected to those nerves and they will feel pain.
Do Cats Whiskers Fall Out?
You may see one of your cat’s whiskers on the floor or her favorite napping spot.
Your cat’s whiskers grow, fall out and get replaced, just like regular hairs. This is an entirely normal process.
On the other hand, if your cat’s whiskers are falling out or fall out in large numbers in a short period of time, it could be a sign of illness. Please consult with your vet if this happens.
Do whiskers grow back on cats?
It can take weeks or generally 2-3 months! But also know that if the follicles are majorly damaged, they won’t grow back.
Why is there a white whisker on my black cat?
You may be surprised to find a white whisker on a solid black feline. This is a typical part of growing old and is similar to our hair turning grey or white with the aging process.
Whiskers Can Reflect Mood
You now know that your cat’s whiskers are part of an important tactile sensory system, but did you also know they can also signal your feline’s mood?
Here are some whisker mood indicators to watch out for:
- Relaxed and calm – whiskers will be sticking straight out.
- Excited or on the hunt – whiskers are pushed forward.
- Angry and scared – whiskers are flat against the cheeks.
- Of course, you will also want to read the rest of your cat’s body signals to get a clear message, but those whiskers can be a good starting point before your angry feline takes a swipe at you.
Us humans have these too.
Ever get “goose pimples?” These muscles are what cause that, although we can’t control ours the way cat’s can. Like stated above with their moods.
Check out Foo Foo below again noticing something outside, his whiskers are forward.
What Is Whisker Stress (Whisker Fatigue)?
Well, whisker stress is just more of a “thing” or phenomenon and not a scientific diagnosis. This theory is more anecdotal.
There’s no scientific evidence of this actually existing. Even the term “stress” or “fatigue”, most vets agree, doesn’t really represent what is actually happening here. The cat is feeling more of a “dislike” or distaste from the way he/she is eating or drinking.
What causes whisker stress:
Many veterinarians and cat owners view this as a “stress” (or an information overload of sorts) caused by their food or water bowls touching the cat’s whiskers for periods of time, every time they eat/drink.
Like you read above, cat’s whiskers are super sensitive.
So, anecdotally, this happens when cat whiskers are pressed or disturbed by using a high-sided or narrow food or water bowl.
If your cat starts to scoop his/her food out with their paw, that’s a sign they are experiencing this phenomena of “whisker stress”.
How to tell if your cat is feeling discomfort from whisker stress:
- Number one: – take your cats to your veterinarian if they are experiencing any problems with eat or drinking.
- But, you’ll see your cat start to eat from the floor by pawing the food out of their bowl bit by bit
- your cat may march around their bowl in a pitiful way meowing (or yelling) at you
- Or they will simply stop drinking/eating
Once your vet rules out any issues with health, then you’re welcome to try to solve your cat’s food/water anxiety…
Since eating out of a bowl that presses on your cat’s whiskers, you can consider feeding your cat on a plate or buying them a wide, flat feeding bowl.
You don’t want to use anything plastic to feed or give water to your cat… can cause chin acne and other issues.
Let’s keep to stainless steel or glass. (with no porcelain paint because treated porcelain can cause allergic reaction’s in cats)
The sizes can be:
- The rim: no more than 2 inches high – preferably as flat as can be.
- The width: more than 8 inches – preferably wider! Let those whiskers not touch a thing while they eat/drink.
Whats A Whisker Friendly Cat Bowl?
You can use something from home, like a wide round, low lip, dinner plate. Or if you in a pinch, grab a paper plate!
In general, I think cats dislike eating out of anything and would just rather eat from a flat surface.
There are a bunch of options here for ways to feed your cat:
- Wet food puzzles – providing hunting opportunities for cats by feeding from food puzzles rather than from bowls.
- NoBowl Feeding System – Indoor Hunting Feeder
- Dr. Catsby’s Food Bowl for Whisker Relief
Interested in the NoBowl system? Watch this 2 part series giving a great realistic view to see if it’s a good fit for you:
Look to the Whisker
Who knew there was so much going on in our cat’s whiskers?
I sure didn’t and I hope you feel a bit more well rounded on the knowledge of your cat in general.
So now you know why those facial whiskers are so long, what they do, why the move, and why they are even there!
They are a genuinely remarkable part of your cat’s senses.