Why Do Dogs and Cats Have Whiskers

You might think that a dog’s or cat’s whiskers are useless, but it couldn’t be any further from the truth. Whiskers help dogs and cats navigate the world around them!

Whiskers are an essential part of a dog’s and cat’s interaction with their surroundings, and they serve a range of purposes. 

Let’s look at why cats and dogs have whiskers and what they do with them.

Note: this post may contain affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something, we may earn a commission. Thanks for reading!

What Are Whiskers?

The whiskers of a dog or a cat are tactile hairs known as sinus hairs or vibrissae. They’re found on the muzzle, above the eyes, and beneath the chin in both pets. 

Whiskers are also found on the bottom of the lower foreleg in cats (carpal hairs). 

Because the follicles from which whiskers grow are densely packed with blood vessels and nerves, they’re more sensitive than ordinary hairs, responding to even slight changes in air currents.

Because the root of a whisker is nearly three times longer than the root of their fur, whiskers grow far deeper in their skin.

Whiskers, unlike ordinary hairs, don’t cover the entire body; they’re strategically placed above the eyes, on the chin, on the forelegs, near the ears, and above the top lip.

The specific placement of whiskers varies based on breed, but most cats have 12 whiskers on each cheek, grouped into four rows.

Young puppies don’t have to wait until maturity to grow whiskers. In fact, whiskers are among the first hairs to emerge and are present at birth. 

These hairs begin thicker than fur at the base and thin out as they extend. They have a harder texture than fur, and the base can be as strong as a safety pin’s point but not as sharp.

What Do Dogs and Cats Do With Their Whiskers?

Whiskers draw attention to a dog’s or cat’s face. When a dog or cat “smiles,” they frame the eyes the same way human eyebrows do and highlight the muzzle. 

On the other hand, whiskers are more than just aesthetic features; they serve many essential purposes, including:

Navigation

The cat and dog’s close-up vision is poor; they actually can’t see anything closer than around a few inches in front of them. 

They use their whiskers to navigate the world directly ahead, as they can detect where an object is, its size, and even its texture by rubbing them against it.

Whiskers help with vision in the dark by providing additional sensory information, similar to how antennae help other organisms.

The whiskers flex slightly as the air stirred up by the animal’s movement bounces off objects, indicating the existence of an obstacle.

Sense of Touch

They’re also finely tuned tools linked to one of your pet’s five senses: touch. 

Even in the dark, whiskers can enable cats and dogs to detect a close object before crashing into it and perhaps injuring themselves.

It’s a lot similar to how humans sense things with their hands, especially when visibility is poor.

Vibration Sensor

Your kitten’s or dog’s whiskers work like small radar detectors, detecting minute vibrations generated by air current changes.

Air bouncing off adjacent objects or movement causes these shifts in the air current. The whisker can detect minute air changes and send them to their brain.

It’s combined with other senses, including sight, to gain a greater picture of the world around them.

Orientation

Some whisker follicle cells are also proprioceptive, identifying how a cat or dog is oriented to the ground based on gravity pulling on the hair. That’s necessary for an animal that has to land on its feet all the time!

Grooming Newborns

A mother cat will often bite her kittens’ whiskers until they are very short while grooming them to keep them from straying away from her while they’re young.

It has also been observed that cats living together have done this to each other as a dominance display.

Help in Hunting

Cats and dogs may extend their whiskers forward when trying to decide where the deadly bite should be placed when gripping prey or locating and taking up objects with their mouth.

It’s also worth noting that cats have carpal whiskers, which are sensory tendrils placed at the back of a cat’s front legs and on the undersides of its wrists, helping it climb trees and kill prey.

Measuring Openings

The dog and cat have to enter an opening with their heads first and then the rest of their bodies. This is because their whiskers double as a ruler! 

Because your cat’s or dog’s whiskers are arranged around the width of their bodies, they’re fantastic at assisting them in determining how small or large an opening is.

Reveals Their Mood

When a cat or dog is relaxed, its whiskers remain straight out from the side of its head. They’ll push them forward slightly if they’re intrigued by something or on the hunt. 

When a cat or dog is nervous or upset, the whiskers are pinned back against the face.

An Aging Indicator

Your cat’s whiskers might show symptoms of aging, much like ours do as we get older. Their pristine white whiskers might occasionally turn dark gray or even black, though this does not usually happen.

Trimming Whiskers

Never pull or trim a cat’s or dog’s whiskers. The nerves at their roots are extremely sensitive, and trimming them can be painful for the animal.

Whiskers should never be shortened, but they, like fur, go through growth, dormancy, and shedding cycles.

Did you know that almost 40% of the sensitive area of a dog or cat’s brain relates to parts of the body with whiskers? 

Whiskers occupy important cerebral real estate in a dog’s and cat’s bodies because every single whisker can be linked back to a specific place in the brain.

Cutting their whiskers affects their ability to function, resulting in confusion, dizziness, and panic as they lose their sense of direction and are unable to move their bodies.

Your dog’s or cat’s spatial awareness will be decreased without whiskers, and their sense of touch won’t be present to support their eyesight.

Conclusion

The whiskers on your furry pet are an iconic part of their body. They not only look adorable, but they also serve a key purpose.

Whiskers, which are nothing like regular hair/fur and are actually very sensitive, serve as the ultimate sensory tool.

So, they should not be cut!

PuppyLists is written by J., who has owned, trained, volunteered with, and loved dogs for nearly three decades. When she isn't writing or researching, she's out adventuring with her 14 year old Lab mix.