Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?

Whether you're a dog owner or just someone curious about interesting factoids, you may have heard that trimming a dog's whiskers can throw them off balance or cause them to walk in circles. While you definitely should not take a pair of scissors to your dog's whiskers to fact check this myth for yourself, it's widely understood that clipping a canine's whiskers won't actually cause them to lose their balance. That said, whiskers do play an incredibly important role in your dog's life, and do affect her ability to understand what's going on around her.

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Defining whiskers

Before we can understand why dogs have whiskers and what they do for our canine companions, it's important to know exactly what whiskers are. To put it simply, whiskers, also known as vibrissae, are stiff hairs that can be found on various parts of a dog's face. While most people immediately think of the whiskers that protrude from the muzzle of a dog, whiskers can also be found above a dog's eyes, which resemble sparse, limited eyebrows, and under the chin.

Unlike fur, which covers most dogs, whiskers are thick, bristle-like hairs that are designated to certain areas. Whiskers are much more deeply embedded into a dog's skin than fur and are considered to be as sensitive as a person's fingertips, according to VCA Hospitals. Why are whiskers so sensitive? Because the hair follicles that they sprout from are filled with sensitive nerves and blood vessels which offer them a touch-sensitive response. This response explains why dogs have whiskers in the first place, as they involuntarily offer protection, sensory observation, and spatial awareness.

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What are dog whiskers for?

Whiskers aide dogs in many ways, one of the most important being the ability to help navigate the world around them. We all know that dogs rely heavily on their sense of smell to gather information about their environment, be they details regarding another dog, a person, or a place. While a canine's sense of smell is exceptional and essential, a dog's whiskers provide additional insight into their immediate surroundings. Whiskers allow a dog to sense how close something may be to him, be that a wall he's about to walk headfirst into, or a speck of dust that's mere seconds away from becoming logged in his delicate eyeball. This added boost of awareness can be especially helpful for long-nosed dogs for whom identifying things up close prove especially difficult.

How do whiskers work?

Although whiskers are regarded as the equivalent of fingertips on a person, it's important to understand that, unlike fingers, whiskers don't actually feel anything. Instead, they work as transmitters to send a message to a dog's brain. AKC explains that whiskers begin delivering said messages by picking up minor changes in air currents, which become moved as a dog moves closer to the object or objects around her. These shifts in air result in very slight vibrations, which are picked up by the whiskers and transmit a touch-sensitive response to the brain. VCA goes on to report that nearly half of a dog's brain's sensory regions are directly aligned with the parts of the face that contain whiskers, making them a highly effective method of navigating their surroundings.

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Whiskers are sometimes described as antennae or radar detectors for their ability to pick up information and transmit it to the parts of the brain that can tell a dog whether to pause or keep moving along. You can sometimes even witness your dog using his facial muscles to position his whiskers forward when investigating an unfamiliar object or person. Because whiskers are so important to a dog's physical safety and overall well-being by providing security, it's important that you handle them with care should you ever find yourself petting your dog's muzzle, brows or chin, and resist the urge to trim, just in case.