Why Do Cats Have Whiskers and How Many Are They?

What are they?

Whiskers, scientifically known as vibrissae are the longer, stiffer, and very sensitive hairs with larger, deeper and well-innervated follicles, having about 100–200 nerve cells for every vibrissa [1], a muscular base and good blood supply.

Besides being longer and stiffer, they are thicker (2-3 times) when compared to the rest of the fur in this pet’s fur.

Usually, they act as touch receptors just as humans use their fingers to feel things when they cannot see them. Although their base or follicles have nerves, the whiskers themselves do not have nerves and cutting them is not painful just like any other hair.

cat whiskers picture
cat whiskers picture

Many animals including dogs, rats, seals, hamsters, rabbits, foxes, chinchillas and so on have them. In fact, all primates besides human beings, most mammals, a few fish, and birds have them.

Finally, they are often located on the muzzle area as well as other areas such as forelegs, above eyes, on jaws, and so on.

Do cats have whiskers?

Yes, cats have whiskers including their kittens, i.e., they have the longer ones or macrovibrissae on the side of their muzzle (the projected part of their face or snout) and shorter ones above their eyes (eyebrow like), on their chin and on their front legs.

Those on their legs are known as the carpal whiskers and they are found on the backside area just above their paws.

Furthermore, breeds have curly whiskers such as the Cornish Rex, LaPerm while a breed such as the Sphynx cat (hairless) may have whiskers that are whole, broken or they could be completely missing.

Besides being hairless, the Sphynx cat’s whisker pads that are chubby. They also have almond shaped eyes making them quite noticeable.

What are they made of?

Cat whiskers are made of keratin, just like any other body hair. Keratin is a structural type of fibrous protein that makeup hair, nails, claws, hooves, and the skin of animals.

How many whiskers does a cat have?

Each side of the snout’s or muzzle has 12 whiskers that grow in horizontal rows. These therefore means that there is a total of about 24 whiskers on cat’s muzzle.

However, this does not include the shorter ones found on their chin, above eye area or on their front legs.

How do they work?

To clearly understand how they perform their work, you need to know that their scientific name vibrissa is derived from a Latin word vibrio which means to vibrate. They vibrate since they have a sensitive muscular base in addition to nerves.

Therefore, whenever they brush or touch anything or are even blown by the wind, they vibrate. These vibrations are picked by the numerous sensitive nerves (proprioceptor) found at their base or hair follicle which then transmit information about duration, speed, and the direction of movement the vibrissae to the nervous system.

This helps cats to know their surroundings, judge distances, and any environmental changes.

What are cat’s whiskers for?

Before you think of cutting them off because you assume that their role is only aesthetic, you deserve to know their purpose or function. Why are they important or why do cats need whiskers?

Feeling and sensing their environment

They work kind like touch receptors with the aid of their touch sensory neurons. Therefore, as Live Science notes, “by brushing its whiskers against an object, a cat can detect the precise location, size, and texture of the object, even in the dark.”

This is possible because the nerves at their follicles can pick and relay information on “direction, velocity, and duration of vibrissal movement,” states Discover Wildlife.

This ability helps them detect their prey or find food, including their prey’s movement as they pursue it by detecting air vibrations. Remember that cats are farsighted and cannot see things near to them well.

To affirm it, PetMD notes, that the “proprioceptor is related to the position of the body and limbs, an important part of knowing where every part of the body is so that decisions can be made for the next immediate movement.”

Additionally, once they have caught its prey, they can sense the direction of its movement using the carpal whiskers.

Secondly, they also play a navigational role where the long facial vibrissae help in detecting a girth of holes, openings, or gaps. It is common to see them doing so via a whisker test where they will try to fit their heads into such openings.

Since they can help judge size, the vibrissae help cats to know whether they can squeeze themselves through openings or not since their length is comparable to their body width.

Finally, vibrissae they help them avoid objects as well as help them detect backward and forward movements including that of their predators.

Behavioral purpose – body language

Among the many ways, cats communicate their mood, using their whiskers (as a body language) is one of the ways. Their vibrissae’s position can indicate moods such as aggression, anger, excitement, contentment and so on.

For instance, when they are stiff and pointing forward, it might be a sign of aggression or they are in a hunting mood. However, if they appear to be pulled or folded backward tightly, your feline friend is angry.

Secondly, when startled or excited, their whiskers will tend to assume a forward position while the rest of their body hairs will stand up.

Thirdly, if their whiskers “bunch up and lay flat against the cat’s face — that may be a sign that the cat is scared.”[2]

Finally, according to Animal Planet, “a contented cat’s whiskers are picture-perfect, forward, with a slight downward angle,” or be immobile.

Never cut them

Although whiskers grow back, you should never cut, pluck or trim them owing to the vital roles they perform.

Your feline friend will become not only disoriented but also frightened if you trim or cut their whiskers off while grooming them even if they appear to be very long, unruly or curly.

One common myth is that one of the cats losing balance if their vibrissae are cut off, it is not true since they are not involved in maintaining balance as this happens in the inner ear.

Do they fall off?

Like the rest of body hairs, vibrissae do fall off and regrow back. They have the growth, dormancy and shedding phases. This is perfectly normal, and you should not be worried.

However, if you notice them most of them broken or falling off, it might be a sign that all is not well.

See also

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