Our patients at LazyPaw Animal Hospitals have an ongoing competition to see who has the cutest whiskers. It’s ongoing because, on the scale of adorable-ness, everyone is always outdoing each other.
Whiskers are most often noticed on cats, as evidenced by any child’s drawing of a feline, which is almost guaranteed to include whiskers. However, whiskers are also a feature on most mammals including dogs, mice, beavers, and walruses.
Lots of people assume whiskers are just long hairs, but they are an ingeniously designed type of special hair follicle that’s both thicker and more rigid than fur. Most mammals have them around the mouth, above the eyes, and sometimes between the digits on paws.
Each whisker has roots in a unique hair follicle with additional blood vessels and nerves, which let the whisker function as an extra sensory tool (kind of like an antennae). Like hair, whiskers themselves don’t feel anything, but touch causes vibrations that stimulate the nerves in the follicle. That’s why the word “whiskers” comes from the Latin word “vibrio,” which means “to vibrate.”
Whiskers mostly help with vision and sensing the environment. When animals are prowling through tall grass, whiskers help keep them from being poked in the eye. Cats leverage whiskers on their face to figure out if they can fit into a tight squeeze. Whiskers are so sensitive that animals in dark rooms can detect what’s nearby just by changes in the air current that indicate a wall or object. Walruses use their massive whiskers to both navigate and detect shellfish in dark ocean waters.
Whiskers can also project emotional messages. When a cat’s whiskers are folded flat on the face, it’s a clear warning to stay back. When an animal is particularly curious while inspecting something, such as sniffing a tasty new treat or deciding if a threat is nearby, their whiskers will sprawl and fan out to take in more information.
It’s normal for animals to shed whiskers sometimes, but they should never be cut on your pet. Trimming whiskers is not only uncomfortable for the animal because they are extremely sensitive hairs, but it may also affect the animal’s ability to stay oriented in their environment.
Some say that animals that have whiskers cut off are basically blindfolded until they grow back, since animals including cats probably can’t see as well as humans. Both cats and dogs with trimmed whiskers will likely become confused and scared, especially when they are older, so cutting them isn’t considerate.