Close-up photo of a cat’s whiskers

Key takeaway

Cat whiskers are an important part of your cat's anatomy. Cats use their whiskers to communicate, keep themselves out of harm's way, and feel the world around them. That said, a cat’s whiskers are extremely sensitive, so it’s best to touch them as little as possible.

Cats have hair all over their bodies, which is typically referred to as fur. However, cat's have a special type of hair that grows on their face—also known as whiskers. Any cat owner knows that cats have whiskers, but we're so used to looking at them that we never really consider what they're for.

Whiskers don't just make your cat's face even cuter. In fact, they have multiple uses that improve your cat's life by helping them communicate and move around the world. A cat's whiskers allow them to interact with everything around them, including their environment, other cats, and even you. This article will dive deeper into why cats have whiskers and what they use them for.

Infographic of how cats use their whiskers

The Purpose of a Cat’s Whiskers

Every whisker has a purpose. So, even though it might seem like whiskers aren't necessary, your cat uses theirs every day. Whiskers are a type of hair that's thicker than regular fur, and whiskers also have deeper roots than fur. But, what are cat's whiskers for? A cat’s whiskers have multiple uses, including communication, touch, and protection.

Communication

Cats use their whiskers to communicate with other felines. Depending on the position of a cat's whiskers, you can determine their mood. For example, cats may flatten or press down their whiskers on their face when they're afraid. On the other hand, cats who are feeling aggressive will have whiskers that jut straight out to the sides.1 If your cat's whiskers are relaxed, they're calm and happy.2

Infographic of a cat’s different facial expressions and whisker positions.

By learning about your cat's whisker and facial expressions, you can gauge whether they're content, fearful, or in pain. For example, if your cat's whiskers are more tense or forward than usual, they may be experiencing discomfort. This coupled with other notable symptoms, such as your cat meowing excessively, can indicate that your pet needs veterinary care. Believe it or not, you can tell a lot from your cat's whiskers and understand their behavior by paying close attention to the positioning of their whiskers.

Touch

Your cat's whiskers are sensitive to the world around them, and they can help them touch and feel things. Cats use whiskers to discover whether they can go somewhere, the same way you might use your hands and arms to feel around your house in the dark. For example, cats can use their whiskers to determine whether or not they can squeeze into a box or another tight space.2 Like you, they also need to feel around in the dark, so they use their whiskers.

The location of your cat's whiskers can help them learn about their surroundings, including whether or not they can walk through certain areas. Whiskers can also notify them of obstacles while providing a sense of balance.3

Your cat's whiskers can help them find just about anything in your home. As you know, cats have a great sense of smell, but their vision is not as great as yours. So, using their whiskers to feel around can help them locate everything, from toys to food bowls.

Protection

When your cat is up at night and looking for a toy or a nice place to sleep, they can use their whiskers to get around. Whiskers essentially allow your cat "see" at night when they have limited vision, so they can feel where they are and where they're going.4 Whiskers further serve as protection by alerting your cat of danger. For example, whiskers can detect whether your cat is about to walk into something that could hurt them, including a wall, sharp object, or other animal.

Whiskers also help protect the eyes from dust particles that could cause cat eye infections. As you know from looking at your cat, they have whiskers in a few different places, including above the eye. Whiskers can help keep debris out of your cat's eye in the same way that eyelashes can. Many cats don't have eyelashes, so whiskers are strategically located in the area that can best protect their eyes.

How Cat Whiskers Work

Now that you know the answer to “what do cat whiskers do?”, it’s time to learn how they work. Whiskers, scientifically known as vibrissae, are a special type of hair that comes from a follicle three times deeper than the rest of the follicles on your cat's body.2 The follicles are connected to muscles, while the whiskers are connected to nerve endings, even though the whiskers don't have nerves.

Whiskers are made from keratin, a protein that makes up the outer casing of horns in animals, including cows.2 While whiskers aren’t a nerve, they have nerve endings, making them a sensory organ like our eyelashes. This allows your cat to sense vibrations, which can help them track prey and measure distances.

Close-up photo of a cat’s whiskers while they look up.

While it may be difficult to tell where your cat's whiskers are, whiskers only grow in specific locations across your cat's body. We all know that cats have whiskers above the upper lip, but many people don't realize that they're also located throughout the face and other areas of the body. Most cats have the same number of whiskers, including 12 on the upper lip, three above each eye, and shorter whiskers on the chin; they'll also have whiskers on their forearms.2

Taking Care of Your Cat’s Whiskers

Even though your cat's whiskers don't have nerves and can't feel pain, they're essential for the health and happiness of your pet. Cats use their whiskers to get around and learn about their environment, so it's important to protect them and keep them healthy. Understanding why cats have whiskers is the first step in keeping them safe. You’ll find a few other ways to take care of your cat’s whiskers below.

Don't trim or pluck a cat's whiskers

You should never trim or pick your cat's whiskers. While cutting a cat's whiskers won't hurt them, it can cause severe stress. Your cat relies heavily on their whiskers in their day-to-day life, so there's no reason to take away something they use constantly.

Keep in mind that cat shedding happens to more than just your cat's fur. Whiskers shed on their own, like the other hairs on your cat. However, while you may want to trim your cat's fur to keep it from getting knotted, you should never trim their whiskers.

Infographic explaining what trimming, cutting, and plucking a cat’s whiskers does to felines.

Plucking or trimming your cat's whiskers can cause your cat to become disoriented or anxious because they can't learn about their environment.2 While professional vets may sometimes have to trim whiskers if the cat has an infection in their follicle or a problem in a whisker-filled area, cat owners should never trim whiskers themselves, especially without medical reason for it.

Cat whiskers grow back, but it takes time, and you don't want your cat to be anxious and unable to move around as easily as before. So, if your pet is healthy and has never had anxiety before, damaged whiskers can be the reason your cat is pacing. If you notice any signs of stress, check your cat's whiskers and make sure they haven't been damaged.

Minimize whisker fatigue

Whisker fatigue happens when cats eat from bowls with walls that are too high and touch their whiskers.5 Cats with whisker fatigue may avoid eating, dump their food on the floor to eat it, or eat slower. The overstimulation of the whiskers essentially causes whisker fatigue. Since a cat must continue to put pressure on their whiskers while dipping their head in the bowl, their whiskers can quickly become overstimulated. While whisker fatigue can be caused by just about anything—as long it's overstimulating the whisker with recurrent pressure—it's typically caused by food and water bowls.5

A few of the most obvious signs your cat has whisker fatigue are not eating or drinking or taking their food out of the bowl to eat. In most cases, you can reduce whisker fatigue by buying your cat shallower bowls.

Other health concerns for whiskers

Whiskers shed naturally on their own, but some diseases that affect the fur and skin can cause whiskers to fall out. These conditions include cat dermatitis, mange, and other infections. Medications can also cause whiskers to fall out. If you notice your cat is shedding their whiskers more than usual or their whiskers aren't growing back, consult a vet as soon as possible since it can indicate a health problem.

Cat Whiskers: Frequently Asked Questions

Does cutting a cat's whiskers hurt them?

Cutting a cat's whiskers won't hurt them, but it will cause stress and confusion because cats rely on their whiskers to communicate, balance, protect themselves, and learn about the world around them.

Do cat whiskers grow back?

Yes, cat whiskers grow back, and many cats shed their whiskers naturally. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months for a whisker to grow back to its normal length after it has been shed or cut.

Can I touch my cat's whiskers?

Yes, you can touch your cat's whiskers, but you shouldn't do it often because putting recurring pressure on your cat's whiskers can lead to whisker fatigue. As you know, whisker fatigue can stop your cat from enjoying regular daily activities, such as eating and drinking. Even though you can touch them, you shouldn't pet them like you would the rest of your cat's fur.

Final Notes

You may have admired your cat's adorable face ever since the day you got them. However, you probably never thought about how important whiskers are to cats and what they're for. Many pet parents know everything there is to know about their pets, but whiskers are often overlooked because you don't normally watch your cat use them. In reality, your cat is using their whiskers every single day. Cats use whiskers to communicate, protect themselves, and touch objects. While they might not be noticeable from a distance, they are an important part of your cat's anatomy.

Protecting your cat's whiskers is crucial because they can lose balance and become stressed without them. Never cut your cat's whiskers, but don't panic if you notice them shedding. Most cats shed whiskers regularly, but it can indicate an underlying health issue if they’re losing too many whiskers in a short period. If you're concerned about your cat's whiskers or don't know whether or not they're suffering from whisker fatigue, it's always best to talk to a vet.

Don't worry; going to the vet is easier than ever with Dutch. Dutch offers telemedicine for pets from the comfort of your home, so your cat can easily and conveniently receive the care they deserve from a licensed veterinarian.

References

  1. “Feline Behavior Problems: Aggression.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 24 July 2018, www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-behavior-problems-aggression.

  2. Hanlon, Peter. “Why a Cat's Whiskers Are the Bee's Knees.” Pursuit, The University of Melbourne, 21 Mar. 2022, pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/why-a-cat-s-whiskers-are-the-bee-s-knees.

  3. “A Cat's Five Senses.” CVMBS News, 11 Mar. 2022, vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk/a-cats-five-senses/.

  4. Lindley, Judith. “On Older Cats.” Google Books, Google, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=ybMmGfzlaygC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=cat%2Bwhiskers%2Band%2Beye%2Bprotection&ots=GyLj28w7Uo&sig=DpxAVC2WHK72WYXr8N4XzwUjhRo#v=onepage&q&f=false.

  5. “Evaluation of Whisker Stress in Cats.” EveryCat Health Foundation, 22 Dec. 2020, everycat.org/cat-health/evaluation-of-whisker-stress-in-cats/