If you've ever heard the holiday song "My Favorite Things", you'll know that whiskers on kittens is one of the favorite things mentioned! It makes sense to me - whiskers really give a cats face a lot of it's characteristic cuteness! But, why do cats have whiskers? What are whiskers for? What are cat whiskers made of? How many whiskers do cats have? Let's get whisked away into the world of cat's whiskers!
Are cats whiskers sensitive? According to PetMD, a cat's whiskers are made out of keratin, which is the same as the hair on your head, so the whisker itself doesn't have feeling, but they are connected to nerves that are sensitive. In fact, Chewy.com says a cats whiskers are set 3 times more deeply into the skin than their fur, so never pull on a cats whiskers! You know it can be painful if someone pulls your hair, so just imagine someone pulling out a hair that is set 3 times deeper into your skin!
The scientific name for a cat's whiskers is vibrissae (or vibrissa if for some reason you want to talk about one singular whisker), which gives a clue as to what they are sensitive to - vibrations! VCA animal hospitals say that a cat uses it's whiskers like radar! The whiskers are so sensitive to vibrations that as a cat approaches an object, they can detect tiny vibrations from the air currents bouncing off that object! This is part of the reason why cats are so renowned for their night vision - the information from their whiskers helps guide them even with the lights out! Being able to detect those tiny vibrations is an important function of a cat's whiskers in the wild. It helps them in finding prey or avoiding predators.
Besides air currents, the sensitivity of a cat's whiskers can also help them judge whether they can fit in a narrow space, whether it be in a comfy looking box in your home, between some rocks or maybe into a mouse hole, their whiskers can help them measure. Catster.com says that the length of a cat's whiskers on either side of it's nose are around the same width as their body, so they'll know that if their whiskers fit, they will too!
But, a cat doesn't just have whiskers on the sides of it's face, whiskers can also be found above the eyes, under their chin and even on the backs of their front legs. Chewy.com says that a cat has 12 whiskers on each side, for a total of 24 around their nose, but when you count the eyebrows, chin and leg whiskers, the count is actually higher!
Those extra whiskers above the eyes serve to help protect their eyes. If those whiskers feel something, the cat will blink to keep from getting poked in the eye!
But, what about those foreleg whiskers? According to Catster.com those also have an important purpose! Those whiskers on a cats front legs help them position their prey for that fatal bite!
Another way a cat uses it's whiskers is to orient itself in space. A cat's whiskers don't only detect air currents when the cat is walking or running, but also when a cat is jumping or falling, which helps them with their famous ability to be able to land on their feet!
So, even though the hair of the whisker isn't sensitive a lot of sensitive information is registered by a cat through it's whiskers, so never cut a cat's whiskers! It would be like one of us losing one of our senses! Chewy.com says a cat can get stressed and disoriented without it's whiskers. Don't worry if you see a stray whisker in your home though - cat's do shed their whiskers, but PetMD says it's never more 1 or 2 at a time, so they have the others to fall back on. A new whisker will grow back right in the same spot where the old one fell out.
Because a cat's whiskers are so sensitive to touch and vibration, cats can experience whisker fatigue. That's when their whiskers are overstimulated, and can often happen if their food is the wrong size dish so that the sides of the dish bother their whiskers. PetMD.com says if you see your cat scooping food out of their dish to eat off the floor they might be experiencing whisker fatigue, so you might want to check with your vet to see if a wider, shallower dish might be more appropriate for them.
Cat whiskers aren't just about senses though, they are also an important facial feature! Cats can portray emotions with their faces, just like we do, and for a cat, the whiskers are part of that. VCAHospitals.com notes that if a cat is active, their whiskers are too! A curious or happy cat might elevate their eyebrow whiskers; one that feels threatened might pull them back and then push them forward toward whatever they feel threatened by, so paying attention to your cat's whiskers can give you some good feedback into how your cat is feeling!
It's no wonder that whiskers on kittens made the list of favorite things! They are an important part of a cat's life, so I'm sure if cats have a song about favorite things, their whiskers are probably included on it too!