“Cats’ whiskers are so sensitive; they can find their way through the narrowest crack in a broken heart.”
While that popular saying may not be true, cat’s whiskers do serve many purposes for our feline friends – including navigation.
Where are they?
Whiskers can be found at multiple places on your cat, but are mostly known for growing on their cheeks. The same whiskers grow on eyebrows, the chin, and the front & back of legs – just not as many. Each whisker stems from inside the cheek at a hair cuticle just like the other hairs on their fur but a whisker is much thicker and longer.
They do fall out on their own occasionally and are completely replaced in approximately 2-3 months. Depending on the breed, there are 8-12 whiskers on each side of their face, just on the cheek region alone. The whiskers on the chin are generally shorter and fewer in number than the cheek whiskers.
Whiskers are used for many purposes, perhaps the most common use being path finding. Each cat’s whiskers will grow to the length of the widest part of their body, typically being a shoulder or hip span. You may even notice that heavier set cats have longer whiskers than those who are petite in size. The reason for correlation of whisker length to body size is because cats use their whiskers to gauge if they will fit through an opening.
Often, a kitty will stick their head in something, such as a box or the space between the refrigerator and the wall to see if their head will fit. This looks silly to us, but they are actually testing to see if their body will fit by seeing how well their whiskers fit in the space.
If the whiskers bend or move to fit into the tight space, they will most often not attempt to squeeze their body in. This is also an excellent method for blind cats that cannot see what they may be heading into; if the whiskers touch they know not to go in that direction.
Along with judging spaces, cats can also feel air movement flow with their whiskers which serves as a prediction of sorts. When racing down the stairs and whipping around the corner into a different room, how is it they come so close to hitting something but often never do? When their whiskers feel a change of air movement, they adjust their direction accordingly.
For example, if you are standing or even walking, your body blocks the air flow. Your cat can sense the difference in air flow and moves to an area where they can again feel a flow, knowing that the space ahead of them is clear to move into. This happens around corners and even around furniture.
Whiskers also help them to find their prey (or toy) when wrestling with it. Whiskers on the front and back of their legs help to exactly locate the toy or feel if the prey is trying to get away. Have you ever noticed your cat not even looking at a toy mouse but hitting it perfectly? These types of sensor whiskers also help them avoid rocks in tall grass or potential hazards in their path.
Lastly, whiskers can display a cat’s mood. The whiskers are able to be controlled by temperament and mood. When a cat is angry, scared, or feeling confronted, the whiskers will be pulled back.
This is to protect them from any damage since they are a valuable asset in so many ways. When your cat is feeling happy, playful, and intrigued, the whiskers will be pushed forward and fully spread to gather as much information as they can!
You can also tell a dominant versus submissive cat by their whiskers. When you have more than one cat at home, or an outdoor cat, you may notice some whiskers shortened one day. Dominant cats will chew off part of a submissive cats whiskers to show an authoritative figure over the other.
This usually happens during grooming and the submissive cat learns their “role.” If repeated whiskers are missing then the dominant cat is still trying to teach the submissive one to behave and show respect. Usually, they will find their corresponding positions in the cat hierarchy and the whiskers will regrow.
It has also been known for mother cats to bite off their kittens’ whiskers during times of nursing so other kittens can feed without whisker space occupying unused space.
As you can see, whiskers are very important for several reasons! It is very important not to trim, bend or break them on your cat. A cat without whiskers is often skittish and unsure of themselves, not healthy, and not as proud as we might hope them to be.