What’s two to three times thicker than hair, sensitive to the touch, and attached to your favorite furball? Yep, whiskers… those long, sometimes curly, sometimes straight fronds sticking out of your cat’s muzzle (and, as it turns out, legs, but more on that later). If you’ve ever wondered what the point of whiskers is (hint, they’re a lot more than just decoration), you’re in the right place. Read on to find out ten fascinating facts about your cat’s most useful accessory.
1. They’re exquisitely sensitive
If you’ve ever studied a cat (and what slightly obsessed pet owner hasn’t?), you’ll have noticed their whiskers are extremely sensitive. Brush them by accident, regardless of how gently, and that spells the end of the petting session. The reason? A whisker, simply put, is one long touch receptor. While hair follicles have a few nerve endings, whisker follicles (or vibrissae, to give them their proper name) are quite literally packed with them. Every time these super sensitive super-hairs make contact with something around them, the nerve endings at their root sends signals to their brain and nervous system. Nine times out of ten, the message the brain sends back will see the cat either beating a hasty retreat, or worst-case scenario, launching an attack.
2. Muzzle whiskers come in packs of 24
You don’t have to be overly acquainted with cats to know that whiskers are found on the muzzle. Known as mystacial whiskers, these stiff little hairs are typically found in tightly packed horizontal rows, with 12 whiskers on either side (although don’t worry if your cat has more, the actual number can vary depending on breed, size, and several other non-consequential factors). Usually, whiskers are long and straight, but depending on breed, they can also come in curly and short varieties.
3. Legs have whiskers too
Remember when we said whiskers were found on the muzzle? We lied. Well, not really, but the muzzle is far from the only place on a cat’s body you’ll find whiskers. Look closely enough, and you’ll find them everywhere from above the eyes and on the jaw to down behind the front legs near the feet (particularly handy whiskers, these, helping as they do with climbing and even positioning prey ready for the final death blow).
4. They help cats see in the dark
Whispery though they may be, whiskers are actually (in cat terms at least) big enough to hold an organ at their end. This organ, known as a proprioceptor, feeds information back to the brain and nervous system about what’s happening in a cat’s immediate surroundings. So sensitive is the proprioceptor, it can even detect minute changes in airflow, letting the cat know where it is in relation to external objects, even when it’s too dark to see.
5. They help cats through the trickiest of spots
Have you ever seen a cat crawl through the tiniest spot and wondered how on earth they managed to fit? You’re not the only one. Unlike most creatures, cats can always be confident of how well they’ll squeeze through a tight spot, and it’s all thanks to their handy whiskers. Whiskers are almost exactly the same width as a cat’s body: if they manage to get their head through a hole without their whiskers scrunching, there’s every chance the rest of their body will get through too.
6. They’re mood indicators
Remember mood stones? Believe it or not, whiskers are the feline equivalent. While they don’t change color according to whether they’re feeling happy or blue, they do reveal a lot about a cat’s inner mindset. Whiskers pulled back against the face? Then get ready to handle one seriously angry cat. Whiskers pushed a little forwards? Then your cat is either feeling a little curious or on the prowl. The best, of course, are still whiskers sticking straight out- the sign of a very contented little puss indeed.
7. They can cause food issues
If you’ve noticed your cat shying away from the food bowl or flicking pieces of food out of the bowl before eating, it could all come down to their whiskers. As we’ve already learned, whiskers are immensely sensitive- so sensitive, in fact, that some cats will back away from anything they come into contact with, including the food bowl. If you notice any unusual behaviors around mealtimes, try switching to a wider food dish with shallow sides.
8. They should never be cut
As Catster notes, one thing you should never, ever do to a cat’s whiskers is cut them. Whiskers, a bit like eyelashes, will naturally fall out from time to time, but this doesn’t mean you should include them in your cat’s next haircut. Cats rely on their whiskers for a myriad of things, not least for receiving navigation signals. Chopping them off is, for them, our equivalent of being blindfolded. Unless you want to leave your cat seriously dazed and confused, just don’t do it.
9. They help with close-up vision
Considering how easily they get around in the dark, it might come as a surprise to learn a cat’s vision isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While their long-distance vision is usually 20/20, pop anything less than 30cm in front of them, and they’re unlikely to be able to make head nor tail of it. Fortunately, when their vision lets them down, their whiskers rise to the challenge, sending back enough signals to the brain to let them know the size, shape, location, and even texture of anything they come into contact with.
10. They can change color
Humans aren’t the only ones to go a little grey with age. As your cat gets older, prepare to see some changes around their muzzle. Although it doesn’t happen to all felines, it’s perfectly normal for whiskers to take on a different hue with age, with the white whiskers of their youth making way for dark grey or even black ones in their twilight years.