What Do Cat Whiskers Do?

Cat whiskers are specialized hairs that grow on a cat’s face. The whiskers, also known as tactile hairs or vibrissae, primarily serve as sensory organs that help cats perceive their surroundings and navigate their environment. Cat whiskers have nerve endings that send sensory information to a cat’s brain about objects and spaces near the whiskers. This allows cats to detect subtle changes in their surroundings and movements in the air that help them determine if spaces are too small to fit through. Overall, cat whiskers provide cats with important spatial, tactile, and navigation information about their immediate environment.

Sources:

https://www.litter-robot.com/blog/why-do-cats-have-whiskers/

https://content.petmate.com/academy/facts-about-cat-whiskers/

Anatomy

Cats have whiskers located in several places on their face and body. The most noticeable whiskers are the mystacial whiskers, which are found on either side of a cat’s muzzle above the upper lip. Mystacial whiskers typically grow up to 4-6 inches long. There are 4-6 rows of mystacial whiskers on each side, with the upper rows usually being the longest. These whiskers are embedded deeply into the cat’s lip tissue and have blood vessels and nerves running through their follicle (the cavity where the whisker grows from).

In addition to the mystacial whiskers, cats also have several other types of whiskers:

  • Superciliary whiskers – Located above the eyes
  • Genal whiskers – On the cheekbones
  • Interramal whiskers – On the chin, aligned with the upper lip
  • Carpal whiskers – On the back of the front legs near the wrist joint

Whiskers are similarly embedded in the skin across all areas of a cat’s body where they grow. The follicle shape, blood supply, and sensory innervation allow the whiskers to be highly sensitive tactile hairs.

Sources:

https://kritterkommunity.com/the-anatomy-of-a-cats-whiskers/

How Whiskers Grow

Cat whiskers go through a regular growth cycle where they will grow to a certain length, fall out, and then regrow. The growth phase lasts about 60-90 days, after which the whisker reaches its full length and then sheds. After falling out, a new whisker will start growing in the empty follicle within 1-2 weeks.

Cats typically have 4-6 rows of whiskers on each side of their face. Each follicle only produces one whisker at a time. So if a whisker is damaged or falls out prematurely, the replacement whisker will grow back in the same spot.

Kittens are born without whiskers. They start to develop whiskers at around 2-3 weeks of age. The whiskers will continue growing longer and thicker as the kitten matures.

If a cat’s whiskers are cut, they can fully regrow but it takes time. A cut whisker may take 4-6 weeks to regrow completely. Forcibly cutting a cat’s whiskers is painful for the cat and should be avoided unless medically necessary.

In rare cases, whiskers may stop growing back due to damage to the follicle. But typically, as long as the follicle remains healthy, new whiskers will continue regenerating throughout the cat’s life. The growth cycle slows down in elderly cats, so whisker regrowth also slows with age.

(Source: https://blog.catbandit.com/do-cat-whiskers-grow-back-if-cut/)

Sensory Function

Cat whiskers play a vital role in helping cats sense their surroundings. The whiskers contain sensitive nerve endings that send sensory information to the brain, allowing cats to detect subtle changes in their environment (Dutch, 2022).

Whiskers essentially act like radar for cats. As cats move through spaces, their whiskers brush up against objects, which provides spatial information about their proximity to things around them. This allows cats to navigate tight spaces and avoid bumping into or getting stuck in confined areas (CatBandit, 2022).

The whiskers also detect air currents, which alerts cats to movements nearby. For example, if something or someone is approaching, the air disturbance will cause the whiskers to vibrate, signaling the cat that something is happening (Whiskers, 2022). This helps cats be aware of their surroundings at all times.

Overall, the sensitive whiskers allow cats to build a detailed 3D map of their environment, even in low light when vision is limited. The tactile feedback from the whiskers is critical for cats to orient themselves and react appropriately to stimuli around them.

Whisker Sensitivity

Cat whiskers are incredibly sensitive and allow cats to detect subtle changes in their surroundings. The whiskers are full of nerve endings that send sensory information to the brain (1). Even the slightest brush against an object will stimulate these nerve endings and alert the cat.

Research has found that cat whiskers are so sensitive that they can detect changes in air currents. As an object moves near the whiskers, it disturbs the air and creates subtle breezes and pressure changes. The cat’s brain receives signals from the whiskers that allow it to detect an object’s proximity, shape, size, and texture (1).

A 2015 study tested whisker sensitivity by blowing controlled puffs of air onto anesthetized cats. The scientists measured the electrical signals in the brain and found cats could detect air puffs so faint they deflected the whiskers less than half the width of a human hair (1)! This exceptional sensitivity helps cats navigate in the dark and survey their surroundings without relying on vision alone.

Another experiment found that cats could even use their whiskers to judge if an opening was wide enough for their body to fit through. When cats whiskers touched both sides of an opening, the brain got signals that it was too small to squeeze through (1).

Overall, the whiskers serve as a highly sensitive “range finder” for cats. Even minimal sensations along the whiskers provide cats with a wealth of spatial, navigational and environmental information.

Whisker Movements

Cats have an amazing ability to move their whiskers to gather sensory information about their surroundings. The whiskers are controlled by muscles at the base, allowing a cat to move them independently in different directions (Source). Whiskers can swivel back and forth, spread out to the sides, and even move forward and backward.

When whiskers detect an object or obstacle, they will instantly recoil or twitch to signal the brain. A cat may then reposition its head to avoid the object. This whisker movement and reaction happens extremely quickly, allowing a cat to navigate complex environments and tight spaces. For example, whiskers help a cat judge if it can fit through an opening. The whiskers on each side of the face will touch the edges, providing sensory feedback about the size.

In relaxed situations, cats may gently sweep their whiskers back and forth against objects or people as a way to gather sensory information. The angle, speed, and range of whisker motion provides insight into a cat’s interest, caution, contentment or irritation. Paying attention to subtle whisker movements can help clue owners into their cat’s mood and needs.

Whisker-Body Coordination

Cats have an amazing ability to coordinate their whisker sensations with body movements. Information from the whiskers is sent to the somatosensory cortex in the brain, which processes touch and proprioception (sense of body position and movement). The brain integrates whisker sensations with signals from the inner ear and eyes to create a detailed spatial map and sense of balance. This allows cats to gracefully move through narrow spaces and accurately judge distances when jumping or hunting prey.[1]

As a cat moves, its brain coordinates small whisker movements to maximize sensory information. For example, a cat may angle its whiskers forward when creeping up on prey or shift them sideways to gauge an opening. The whiskers essentially act as an early warning system, allowing cats to detect and avoid objects even in the dark. This whisker-body coordination contributes to cats’ well-known agility and self-assurance in navigating all kinds of environments.

Whisker Damage

Damage or loss of whiskers can impact a cat’s spatial awareness and navigation. Whiskers contain sensitive nerve endings that provide sensory information to the cat. When whiskers are trimmed or plucked, it can temporarily disrupt the cat’s ability to judge distances and move around objects.

Whiskers should not be cut, as this disables the sensory organs at the base. However, if damage occurs, whiskers can regrow in around 6 weeks to 3 months, as long as the follicle itself is undamaged. The new whiskers will regain full sensation and function.

Signs of whisker damage include clumsiness, bumping into objects, and hesitation jumping onto surfaces. Some cats may seem stressed or anxious without their whiskers. It’s best to avoid trimming whiskers and allow natural regrowth if any are lost.

Sources:

Do Cat Whiskers Grow Back? You Cat’s Whiskers Explained

Individual Differences

There can be considerable variability in whiskers between individual cats. Some key differences include:

Whisker thickness – Male cats tend to have thicker whiskers compared to females. However, there can be variation between individuals regardless of sex (Source).

Whisker length – In general, male cats tend to have longer whiskers than female cats. However, whisker length can vary substantially between individual cats (Source).

Whisker color – Whisker color corresponds with coat color. However, the exact shade can vary between individuals.

Whisker shape – There can be variation in whisker shape between individual cats. For example, some cats may have straighter whiskers, while others may have more curved whiskers.

Number of whiskers – Most cats have approximately 24 whiskers, but some may have slightly more or less. Rarely, cats may be born with extra whiskers or have whiskers missing altogether.

Whisker sensitivity – There can be differences in whisker sensitivity between cats, which may influence how reliant they are on their whiskers for spatial awareness and navigation.

Overall, while there are some general patterns, a cat’s individual genetic makeup leads to differences in whisker characteristics between individuals.

Conclusion

In summary, cat whiskers serve several important functions for cats. Whiskers are sensory organs that are highly sensitive to touch and air currents [1]. The whiskers on a cat’s face help them detect objects and navigate spaces, acting like radar and allowing cats to avoid obstacles even in the dark [2]. Whiskers also aid cats in hunting by helping them track prey movements. Additionally, whiskers give cats information about their surroundings that can’t be detected by vision alone. For example, whiskers can sense changes in air currents that allow cats to judge spaces and openings [3]. In short, whiskers are a key sensory organ for cats that facilitates navigation, spatial awareness, and hunting through touch-sensitive hairs.

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