The hair or fur of mammals has a practical purpose but whiskers have a different mechanism. Cat whiskers are much denser than hair or fur, growing sparsely around the muzzle and above the eyes. They are scientifically known as vibrissae, an etymologically Latin word that refers to vibration.
Whiskers are like hair containing a shaft of keratin with no nerves or blood being carried past the follicle. The follicle itself is different from hair follicles; it is packed tight with countless nerves. The follicle of a whisker has more blood than a hair follicle as well, supplying it with the nutrients necessary to carry on its important functions. A substantial portion of the cat’s brain is dedicated to receiving and interpreting the information sent back by those nerves located in the follicle. The whisker is inert and has no feeling or senses but it makes an excellent receptor.
As a cat roams around the long whiskers will brush against obstacles or objects. The vibrations of the whiskers are noted by the nerves in the follicle thus allowing the cat to determine what kind of space they are in or how to navigate their surroundings.
Cats have good night vision but they can’t solely depend on their sight to aid in hunting or foraging. They are known to try to get into small or high spaces. Their whiskers aid in their prowling and can help prevent the cat from getting stuck in too-small spaces. Whiskers can also detect differences in textures and temperatures giving the cat an advantage in finding the most comfortable places to rest or make their homes.
Why Don’t Humans Have Whiskers?
Like much of evolutionary biology, this question is answered by tentative hypotheses. It seems we’ve lost the DNA bundle located near the DNA responsible for tactile whiskers but the reason why is unclear. A possible effect of losing that portion of DNA may be a bigger brain size. The portion of DNA that humans lost may suppress the ability for the brain to expand and evolve.
Humans have also developed especially sensitive hands and fingertips which are so perceptive that blind people can see and read with them. Perhaps our fingers act like the whiskers of animals but with the extra capability of being able to hold objects and perform tasks with surgical precision.
How to Treat Your Cat’s Whiskers
It’s best to leave your cat’s whiskers alone. They don’t need trimming or grooming. You may have noticed a couple of whiskers have fallen out. This is normal as whiskers shed and regrow just as your hair does. Whiskers, as tough as they are, get worn down so they do regenerate on a regular cycle. Sometimes you cannot avoid trimming the whiskers especially if your cat is in dire need of grooming. If you must trim them just let them grow back to normal length.
Under no circumstances should you ever pull out a whisker even if you think that it will help your cat. Remember that whiskers are firmly ensconced by a bundle of nerves and an ample supply of blood. Pulling out a whisker can cause damage to this large follicle as well as cause your cat immense pain.
A cat without whiskers is like a human without one of the senses. While a cat can survive and function without whiskers, they don’t feel comfortable without them and they cannot gauge their surroundings as well. Besides, they are an essential part of your cat’s adorable face – even if they exist only for practical reasons.
By Gabrielle Allemeier
Live Science: Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
LA Times: Why Humans Have Big Brains But Don’t Have Whiskers or Penises With Spines
Wide Open Pets: Everything You Need to Know About Cat Whiskers
About the Author
Gabrielle Allemeier volunteers her free time as an animal rescuer and foster pet parent. As an animal lover, she enjoys sharing the knowledge she has gained from her experience with a variety of animals. Along with being an animal lover, Gabrielle is a globetrotter. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her terrier, Thisbe.