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Why do cats have whiskers and what do they use them for?

A close up of a grey tabby cat's whiskers

Whiskers help cats see in the dark

© fantom_rd - Shutterstock

Your cats’ whiskers don't just look adorable, they serve a very important set of functions too. Want to know more? Read on for the complete guide to cats’ whiskers.

By Natasha James

Published on the 06/04/2021, 17:00

Cats’ whiskers may look and feel a little like human hairs but the job they do is so much more important than that. These multifunctional tools are connected to a cat’s muscular and nervous system to send important messages straight to the brain.

But, first things first, let’s start at the beginning...

What are cats’ whiskers?

To put it simply, whiskers (or vibrissae) are long hairs that protrude from the area around the cat's eyes, nose, jaw and even forelegs. Thicker and longer than ordinary hair, these clever instruments are embedded deep into the hair follicle and are used by cats to help them make sense of the world around them.

Cats have two sets of identically spaced whiskers on either side of their face.

Why do cats have whiskers?

Sure, they look sweet, but whiskers are unbelievably important to your cat. Take a look at these five incredible functions of your cat's whiskers:

1. Whiskers help cats to measure distance

Your cat’s whiskers are the exact width of their body. Ever seen a cat tentatively poke their head into a small space before they move the rest of their body? That’s because your cat’s whiskers act as a measuring tool and let's your cat know how tight the space is – incredible things!

2. Cats' whiskers can sense vibrations in the air

Your cat’s whiskers are so sensitive they can pick up on vibrations in the air to help them measure distance or even chase prey.

3. They’re a close up vision aid

Cats’ eyesight isn’t as good as humans. It’s thougt that if something is closer than 30cm, they struggle to see it clearly. Luckily for kitties, their whiskers tell them what’s straight ahead of them and even the size of the shape of the object.

4. They help cats to see in the dark

If you wake up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, there’s every chance that you’ll stub your toe at some point. Cats have their trusty whiskers which pick up on air currents in the room to determine where the furniture or other obstacles are. They also have much better night vision than us. In essence, cats are much better equipped for moving around in the dark than we are!

5. Whiskers protect a cat’s sensitive areas

Your cat’s whiskers will help to protect any sensitive parts of their body. Yes, these incredible appendages can detect sharp or harmful things in advance so a cat can protect their face or eyes.

What happens if you cut off a cat's whiskers?

Before we say another word, we should point out the obvious: you should never, ever trim a cat’s whiskers. Some owners may accidentally trim whiskers as part of a home grooming regime but this should be avoided at all costs. Whiskers are incredibly important to your cat and trimming them could result in a disoriented and frightened cat who will have problems navigating the world around them.

Can cats live without their whiskers?

A cat won’t die without its whiskers but will struggle to make sense of its environment. Trimming or removing a cat’s whiskers is a big no-no.

Does it hurt if you touch a cat's whiskers?

Think of your cat’s whiskers as antennae or feelers. Touching them won’t hurt your cat, (whiskers are designed to touch things in order to help your cat understand the world around them, after all) but some cats might not like it. Pulling them, on the other hand, would hurt your cat. Treat them with the respect they deserve and only touch your cat’s whiskers if they’re nuzzling into you for some love and affection!

The final word on cats’ whiskers

Impressed? We are. Cats’ whiskers are an incredibly useful instrument that help your cat in so many ways. They can also give you an indication of how your kitty is feeling. Relaxed and still whiskers show that your cat is happy and calm, pushed back whiskers could indicate that your cat is feeling anxious or stressed, and pushed forward means they’re curious or excited. We think cats’ whiskers are…the cats’ whiskers.

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