One of the most distinguishing features of a cat must be its whiskers, but what are whiskers? What purpose do they serve, and what happens if you were to clip a cat’s whiskers? Although cats are covered in hair their whiskers really stand out. They are found above the cat’s eyes, above their lips, on their chin, and even on their front limbs. All whiskers are symmetrical and serve many important functions – so can you cut a cat’s whiskers?
What are whiskers?
Whiskers, also known as vibrissae, are specialized guard hairs. They are made from keratin, a fibrous protein that is also found in the cat’s claws. It is the same structure that makes up horn, hoofs, wool, feathers, and the outermost layers of the skin. Most mammals have whiskers (including humans, once upon a time!), but they can also be found on some species of birds and even fish.
Coarser and thicker than the other hair on the cat’s body, the roots of the whisker sit three times deeper in the skin. These roots are surrounded by pockets of blood and extremely reactive sensory nerves which give the cat’s whiskers their main purpose – helping the cat navigate and make sense of their environment.
How does a cat use its whiskers?
The unique structure of whiskers picks up vibrations and changes in the airflow around the cat. Nerve cells then transmit information about the size, shape, and speed of nearby objects and animals to the cat’s brain. This information helps locate prey such as small mammals when hunting outside as well as enabling the cat to navigate and make sense of its environment, especially in the dark.
Whiskers are used like radar sensors
By detecting air movement, your cat’s whiskers can tell them about objects nearby, as well as how fast they are moving. Your cat can use this information to determine where objects are in relation to their head and legs, which is particularly useful when they need to judge spaces or when jumping distances.
Whiskers may help your cat communicate with you and other cats
A cat’s whiskers can be used as part of their complex system of communication. Whiskers are attached to nerve endings and muscles which allows the cat to move their whiskers independently. They can therefore be fanned out and pointed forward when the cat is alert and actively seeking prey. A nervous or frightened cat will lie their whiskers flat against the side of their face.
Whiskers help your cat “see” up-close
Cats are nearsighted, meaning their vision is good enough to see objects at a distance but they have trouble focusing on objects at close range. You’ll probably have noticed this when watching your cat look for the treat they can’t find, even though it’s right under their nose. The whiskers on your cat’s chin help to pinpoint objects underneath and around their face.
When a cat hunts, the whiskers are pushed forward, almost wrapping themselves around the prey to help determine when and where to bite. This again compensates for how poorly a cat sees objects nearby.
Whiskers help protect your cat from injury
A cat’s eyes are very delicate and can be damaged easily. The whiskers that sit above the eye on the cat’s eyebrow, called the superciliary whiskers, initiate the blink reflex when touched even by the smallest speck of dust. This protects the eye from harm.
When a cat brushes up against a thorny hedgerow or tall blades of grass, the whiskers found on the cat’s face will also prompt them to back up so as not to be scratched or poked in the eye.
Will it hurt if I clip my cat’s whiskers?
Just like when you get a haircut, it won’t hurt your cat if you accidentally cut their whiskers off or if your vet has to trim the whiskers for a surgical procedure. Although your cat’s whiskers are “tactile hairs”, they don’t contain nerve endings, so your cat won’t feel anything.
However, you should never cut or pull off a cat’s whiskers intentionally and you should stay clear of the whisker follicles which are extremely sensitive to pain.
What happens if my cat’s whiskers are clipped off?
As your cat uses their whiskers to help make sense of their environment, clipping off their whiskers causes them to become disorientated. They may become distressed and as they are no longer able to navigate their surroundings with confidence, they may become fearful.
Cat’s that go outside are even more at a disadvantage if their whiskers are trimmed or cut off completely. There are more hazards and obstacles for your outdoor cat, and they need their whiskers to help them stay out of danger.
Without their whiskers, your cat may have difficulty determining the width of an entrance. The many whiskers found on either side of your cat’s nose, help them to judge whether they can fit through a hole or gap safely, as generally speaking the length of the whisker is proportionate to the width of the body.
As previously mentioned, the whiskers above the eyebrow will prompt your cat to close their eyes or shake off dust particles before they can reach the eye and avoid protruding obstacles. Your cat is at greater risk of eye injuries without these whiskers.
I accidentally clipped my cat’s whiskers, will they grow back?
Trimmed whiskers will eventually grow back if the whisker’s follicle, or root, isn’t damaged. It may take a few months for the clipped whiskers to re-grow, however, keep your cat indoors in the meantime.
Your cat’s whiskers are highly specialized and help them to hunt, communicate and protect them from injury. Whilst clipping a cat’s whiskers isn’t painful, it can stop the whiskers from working. Cats with shorter-than-normal whiskers may be more likely to get injured and may become anxious until their whiskers grow back.
Featured Image Credit: NON, Unsplash