Why do cats have whiskers on their front legs?

Why do cats have whiskers on their front legs?


Even people who have had cats for many years will find themselves surprised by something that their cat does from time to time, and it can be even more confusing when you realise that there is something about your cat’s appearance that has been there all along, but that you never noticed before!

This is exactly the sort of thing that many cat owners think of when they spot the fact that their cats have whiskers-on their legs! If you have never spotted this, take a look at your cat now-you will notice that they have whiskers exactly the same as the ones on their eyebrows and chin, but growing from the rear inside of the legs around the dewclaws.

Whilst most cat owners have at least a basic understanding of the functions of the whiskers on their cat’s faces, the question of what the whiskers on the legs are for-and if they fulfil any function at all-is something that many people have no answer for!

In this article, we will look at the various different functions of the whiskers on the cats’ legs in more detail, and what they do for your cat. Read on to learn more.

More about whiskers

The whiskers on the legs of the cat are called carpal whiskers, and all whiskers are known by the technical term of vibrissae, and they are distinctive from the fur of the cat in terms of both structure and function.

While whiskers themselves are not alive-like hair-the follicles that hold the whiskers are in the most nerve-rich and sensitive areas of the body, which means that even the lightest of contact with the whiskers sends feedback to the skin, which tells cats a lot about their surroundings and the environment around them.

When it comes to the whiskers on the face, this all makes good sense-the whiskers of the face help cats to assess the spaces that they are moving through, and if there are any obstacles in the way.

Additionally, the length that the cat’s whiskers protrude from their faces is roughly equivalent to the width of their girth, and cats can use this information to judge if a space is large enough for them to get through before they commit to trying to squeeze through a gap, or are likely to get stuck!

The whiskers on the legs

The whiskers on the cat’s legs do not help them with working out the space that they are about to go through or the sensory input coming from around them-instead, the whiskers of the legs are important to cats when it comes to catching, and keeping hold of their prey!

Whilst today’s domestic cats do not of course have to hunt for food, many still do out of choice-and even if cats never hunted at all and did not have the evolutionary urge to do so, it would still take tens or even hundreds of generations of cats for the leg whiskers to become rendered obsolete and fail to grow.

The essential function of the whiskers on any part of the body are to feed back stimulus to the cat, and the whiskers of the front legs are no different! They help to make up for the fact that cats do not have particularly sharp short vision, which means that when a cat is incredibly close to something, like prey either in front of them or that they are attempting to catch, they will not be able to see its small movements. This can of course make all the difference between a successful catch, and going home hungry!

However, due to the carpal whiskers on the inside of the front legs, the nerves that connect them to the body provide sensory feedback to the cat about the location of the prey that they are looming over or have caught, which lets the cat know where they need to grasp or bite the animal.

Even once prey has been caught and is in the process of being carried home, these whiskers let the cat know how much their prey is struggling, or if they are twisting around to try to escape or bite the cat, allowing them to make adjustments as needed.

Additionally, when cats kill their prey, they often use their hind legs to disembowel their prey by gripping the prey with their front legs and kicking the back legs up so that the claws rip open their soft underside. If you have ever petted your cat’s tummy only to watch them grasp your arm with the front legs and start kicking and scratching at you with their hind legs, you will have seen this in action!

The whiskers of the front legs help with this too, by again letting the cat know where and how their prey is moving to, without having to see them.



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