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Cat Whiskers Help Them Navigate and Can Tell Us How a Cat's Feeling

Cat whiskers are cute, but they're also essential to the wellbeing of your furry friend. Learn what they can do for cats and what you shouldn't do with them.

By Brittany Edelmann
May 13, 2024 1:00 PMMay 13, 2024 1:10 PM
A cat with long whiskers
(Credit: fantom_rd/Shutterstock)

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If you were to draw a simple kitty on a piece of paper, maybe you would include three lines on each side of the cat’s face to signify whiskers. In reality, our feline friends typically have about 12 on each side of the face (except for say, hairless cats, or sphynx cats, who might have short, broken ones, or none at all). Cats can also have shorter whiskers on their eyebrows and the back of their wrists.

We all know cats have whiskers, but do you ever wonder why and what they’re used for exactly? They could tell us more than we think, and understanding them can be helpful.

The Purpose of Whiskers

Whiskers are “stiffer hairs” that have many sensory nerve endings embedded around the hair follicle, says M. Leanne Lilly, veterinary behaviorist at The Ohio State University. She says whiskers are “sensory organs,” even if we don’t typically think of them this way. They are also known as vibrissae or tactile hairs.

The whiskers near the cat's nose and mouth are especially helpful when it comes to detecting objects and prey. For example, when cats open their mouths to catch prey, “they actually become partially blind to what’s right in front of them,” Lilly explains. This is like how if you look down, you probably can’t see anything under your chin.

“Their whiskers actually tell them where their prey is so they’re less likely to miss,” Lilly adds.

Lilly makes it clear that just because domesticated cats aren’t necessarily hunting for prey in the wild, this doesn’t mean their whiskers aren’t functional.

“They’re still very, very useful for cats even if their primary job in their current home is to lounge around, look pretty, and be catered to,” Lilly says. Our furry feline friends use them when playing with objects, grooming, feeling where other cats are and interacting with them.

Whiskers can also help cats find their way in a dark area. Veterinarian Marina Jaworsky explains that cats “rely on the whiskers, especially at night. Kind of like a radar.”

Not only that, but they can also help cats figure out if they want to pick through something, or if they can fit through a very small space.


Read More: 10 Things You Have Always Wanted to Know About Cats


A Cat’s Overall Health and Wellbeing

For a cat's health, tactile hairs can potentially give more insight about air movement, and parasites on the surface of cat's fur before the parasites might get down to the skin, Lilly adds.

Data from one small 2023 research study, published in the BMC Veterinary Research journal, suggests that wavy whiskers could mean there’s a higher likelihood of a feline leukemia virus. In the study, 50 out of 56 cats with wavy whiskers in this study sample tested positive.

Also, if numerous whiskers fall out at once, along with other changes on the face like general hair loss, scabs, crusts, and inflammation, this could be a warning sign that something more serious is going on dermatologically, Jaworsky adds.

When it comes to a cat’s feelings, clearly, they don’t express their emotions like us humans, or even dogs. Cat’s whiskers, along with their ears and eyes, can give us more clues about how they’re feeling.

“We can use their whiskers also to tell what kind of mental state the cat is in,” Lilly says.

If your cat is excited, say about playing, their prominent whiskers might elevate forward, says Jaworsky. Their eye whiskers might move upward, almost reaching towards you, too.

According to Lilly, if the whiskers are more horizontal, this might indicate our feline friend is more relaxed.

On the other hand, if their whiskers are flattened towards your cat’s face, this might not be a good sign and may indicate he or she isn’t happy and is scared. Lilly says that if the whiskers are more “rigid” this could indicate a more stressed state.


Read More: 8 Do's and Don'ts for Communicating with Your Cat


What Happens if You Cut a Cats Whiskers

There are some things you shouldn’t do with your cat’s whiskers. For example, you should stray away from cutting or shaving the whiskers. If you were to do so, this would essentially take away one of their senses. Lilly says this is comparable to numbing your fingertips permanently or long term. If your cat loses a lot of whiskers, your furry friend might become disoriented and feel pain, too.

Also, rubbing or tugging on them, can be stressful, Jaworsky says. They are indeed sensitive, which is also why you should make sure their food or water bowl as wide enough to accommodate their whiskers. According to a 2020 study, when cats were given the option of their normal food dish, versus a whisker-friendly dish, 24 out of 38 cats appeared to prefer the whisker-friendly one, and spent more time at this bowl during a five-minute period.

It’s clear these long, thick hairs are beneficial in many ways, and yes can tell us more about how our furry friends are feeling, and possibly indicate a need for further evaluation.

“Cats use whiskers a lot every day for sensing the world around them,” says Jaworsky.

If you notice any changes and aren’t sure what it could indicate — still don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian.


Read More: How to Tell if Your Cat Is Sick


Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review them for accuracy and trustworthiness. Review the sources used below for this article:


Brittany Edelmann is a registered nurse who completed a master’s degree in journalism with a specialization in health and science at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. She has written for Discover, Chicago Health, Chicago Caregiving, The Sun-Sentinel, and Medill Reports, as well as The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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