Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?

Why did Mother Nature see fit to endow cats with those long, elegant whiskers of theirs? Is there any truth to the widespread notion that whiskers help cats maintain their balance? We were curious to know the answers, so did a little bit of research to see what we could learn--and what we found out was pretty darned fascinating!

Whiskers allow cats to locate objects and prey
Cats don’t use their whiskers for balance (that’s a myth!), but whiskers allow them to “feel” the precise location of things around them. But why are they feeling around rather than just looking around? Cats are farsighted, meaning that their eyes can see things clearly at a distance but they can’t focus on objects that are right in front of or next to them. Since whiskers are connected to very sensitive nerves, a cat doesn’t even need to touch an object with its whiskers to know it’s there. It simply needs to feel the air bouncing off an object (like a piece of furniture or an animal they’re hunting) and then hitting its whiskers to know exactly where that object is located! And if they’re hunting and ready to deliver that fatal bite, they bring their whisker’s forward toward the hapless victim to feel the precise spot at which to strike.

Whiskers help cats navigate through narrow spaces
Whiskers extend outward roughly as far as the physical width of the cat’s body. For this reason, cats use their whiskers as measuring devices, allowing them to know if their body is actually going to fit through a small opening before attempting to squeeze through. The next time you see a cat proceeding toward a narrow opening or passageway, you’ll notice that she’ll stick her head through first to see whether her whiskers will clear the space. If not, she may change her mind and find a wider path.

Whiskers communicate a cat’s mood
Just like flattened ears, an arched back, and a puffed-out tail are indications that you might want to keep your distance from an agitated cat, the position of a cat’s whiskers also communicates their mood. If his whiskers are extended sideways in their normal position, then he’s feeling calm and relaxed. If they’re pointing forward in their “feeling” position, he’s excited and on high alert. If they’re flattened back, he’s most likely upset or frightened.

Now that you know how important whiskers are to your cat’s well being, make sure you treat these sensitive little extensions with some respect. Though, like regular hair, whiskers don’t actually contain nerves (i.e. they don’t hurt if they happen to get cut off) they should never be played with nor pulled, as this can cause discomfort or pain to the nerves at their root. Also, don’t freak out if you notice that your cat sheds a whisker or two from time to time. Whiskers, like hair, will naturally fall out on occasion. As long as the follicle is undamaged, it’ll grow back.

By Maya M.