The cat’s whiskers... The bee’s knees... the mutt’s, erm... You know how it goes! Various phrases and colloquial sayings in common usage are used as exclamations to indicate that something is really good or particularly special, and the most common of these is of course, “the cat’s whiskers.” But what do we actually know about whiskers, these facial features that are so prominent on our cats and yet, so easily overlooked as they are so familiar to us?
Do whiskers actually serve a useful purpose, or are they just “there?” If you have been wondering this for a while or are reading this article and actually wondering why this hasn’t occurred to you before, read on to learn all about cat’s whiskers!
What exactly are whiskers?
Other than being a brand of cat food, whiskers are of course the long, rather thick and wiry hairs around your cat’s muzzle, and the small sprouts of longer hairs around the eyebrows. Whiskers are also known as tactile hairs, or to give them their correct name, “vibrissae.” Whiskers are very deeply rooted within the skin of the cat, and are shed less commonly than other hairs. The whisker pad, the area of the face that grows the whiskers, is very rich in nerve endings and blood vessels.
Facts about whiskers
- There is no set number of whiskers present on any particular cat, although the total number of visible whiskers on your cat’s muzzle will usually number around 24, with an even number on each side of the nose.
- Whiskers are around three times thicker than the normal hair of the cat, and are much more sensitive. Just light contact on the end of the whiskers will be felt by the sensitive nerve endings of the whisker pad.
- Some breeds of cats don’t have whiskers at all, or only have very short, fine whiskers, such as the Sphynx cat which is otherwise almost totally hairless. This is caused by a genetic anomaly that leads to the hairlessness of the cat.
- Cats with curly or wavy coats such as various rex cat breeds may also have curly or wavy whiskers as well!
- You should never trim your cat’s whiskers or otherwise interfere with them.
What do whiskers do?
Whiskers aren’t there to simply look pretty, and they evolved over time to serve a variety of useful purposes for our cats!
- Whiskers feed into the nerve-rich blood vessels of the muzzle, and can help your cat to navigate their way around their day-to-day lives. This trait is particularly helpful for cats with failing vision or blindness, and to help to support the normal eyesight of the cat in low light or in the dark.
- Whiskers are a good indicator of your cat’s mood, and your cat will pull back his whiskers and flatten them against his face if he feels defensive, angry or stressed. This is usually followed by a yowl or a hiss! The relaxed, happy or inquisitive cat will be wearing his whiskers in a more forward-pointing position, or may be twitching them along with his nose to show he is interested in something or has picked up a scent!
- You can also get an indication of the basic health of your cat from the condition of their whiskers, and a cat that has brittle, thin or missing whiskers will usually be in generally poor condition.
- The most important job of the whiskers and one that few people are aware of, however, is to help your cat to judge whether or not they will be able to fit through a small space or opening.
- The whiskers of the cat protrude from the side of the face a proportional distance to the normal body width of the healthy cat, although if your cat is particularly overweight, it is unlikely that their whiskers will have grown in tandem with their girth. When your cat wants to pass through an opening or other narrow space, the room to either side of their whiskers will let them know whether or not their body will fit through it. If the whiskers lightly brush the sides, it is likely that the cat will make it through; if the whiskers become squashed or folded within the gap, the cat will retreat, as this tells them that their body will not be able to fit through the gap.
Finding a whisker
Whiskers take a relatively long time to grow to their full length and are not shed as frequently or as copiously as the rest of the body hair, so you will not usually find yourself hovering up or brushing up whiskers as part of your clean ups. However, cats do shed their whiskers as part of the natural cellular renewal process, so if you keep a careful eye out within the home, you might be able to pick up a whisker or two over the course of a few weeks. Whiskers are not only interesting to examine up close, but are also renowned to be lucky, so keep your cat’s whisker safe, and make a wish!