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Cat Whiskers: What They Do & How They Work

Learn why cats have whiskers and how they help them see and navigate the world.

Cat whiskers are an incredible part of the feline body. They function like another sense for cats, and have the ability to serve as GPS, extra eyes, extra paws, and so much more. Let’s take a look at cat whiskers by location and explain what they do.

What Are Cat Whiskers?

Cat whiskers are thick, tactile hairs made of keratin found at specific locations on the face and the back of the front legs. Each whisker root is jam packed with 100-200 nerve cells that communicate directly to the brain. When a whisker moves, even slightly, the brain receives info. In fact, 40% of the cat’s brain is devoted to areas with whiskers – not a coincidence. Cat whiskers can contain proprioceptors which use gravity’s pull on the whiskers to tell the brain the position of the cat’s body and limbs at all times (which contributes to them landing on their feet).

What Whiskers Do

Cat whiskers detect changes in air currents, allowing cats to navigate their world. This includes detecting the size, shape, location, and even direction of moving or stationary prey, a predator or object. Rubbing against objects, the whiskers pick up similar information, including texture.

Whiskers allow cats to navigate in the dark, and undoubtedly play a crucial roll in cats that are blind or visually impaired, transmitting information that the eyes can’t. Even a cat that can see perfectly fine can’t see things very well up close. The whiskers step in and take over and will tell the cat exactly where the object is, if it’s moving, and how they should orient their mouth.

Black cat with black whiskers
Frannie’s whiskers are hard to see because they blend with his fur.

Some Whiskers Move

Long whiskers (specifically those on the muzzle) have a muscle sling at the base that allow moved independently, and a larger muscle to move them all at once. Short whiskers like the ones on the chin can’t be moved, but are crucial in transmitting even more specific information about an object to the brain.

Types of Cat Whiskers

We’ll review the different whisker locations. Remember that all whiskers provide info on navigation and touch to the brain, but I’ll call out where a few locations lift some heavy weight with specific tasks.

On the Cheeks

Positioned on the muzzle, these dramatic whiskers are called mystacial whiskers. Most cats have 12 whiskers distributed symmetrically on each cheek. Even though the amount varies breed to breed, they always have an even number.

This combination of long and short whiskers provide the cat with a ton of information:

  • Can I fit? Spread at the width of the cat’s body, mystacial whiskers help a cat determine if they can fit through an opening.
  • How far do I jump? They measure distance from an object.
  • Don’t bump into that. They can tell how close furniture or a wall is.
  • Where is it? Cats can’t see very well close up, but these whiskers help them attack and locate items under their nose, great for hunting or play.

You can tell how you’re cat’s feeling by looking at the position of these whiskers. Whiskers spread out to the sides means your cat is happy and calm. When a cat is scared or mad, they’ll pull whiskers tightly against their cheeks. Pointed slightly forward? They are curious, but if the ears are also down, be careful. That is a sign of aggression.

Above the Eyes & on Outer Cheeks

Black and white cat with bow tie
Pepe’s white whiskers above his eyes and on his upper cheeks are very visible against his white fur.

Supercilliary whiskers are above the eyes, and they aid in the blinking reflex. They protect objects from getting into the eye. The genal tufts are located on the outer, upper part of the cheeks. These provide more eye protection, especially during playing or fighting. They may help spread scent because these whiskers are close to the large skin glands.

Chin

Cat whiskers on the chin are called mandibular whiskers. They can help a cat deliver a kill bite during hunting, and are also useful in spreading scent when a cat rubs against an object.

Cat Whiskers: Rear Front Legs

Carpal whiskers on cat
Cats have whiskers on the rear of their front legs.

Appropriately named carpal whiskers, the whiskers on the rear of the front legs provide a cat with information on an item in their front paws. This is especially useful in hunting or playing. You’ll notice when a cat is holding a toy and bunny footing it, they are never looking at it. They don’t need to. Their whiskers are telling them the exact position of the object. When hunting, the prey is likely moving. These whiskers tell the cat how the prey is moving so they can deliver a precise kill bite or bunny foot to disembowel (I know, ew).

Whisker Fatigue

Because cat whiskers are so sensitive, they can get whisker fatigue. When whiskers repeatedly rub against an object, it causes a sensory overload in the brain. As a result, the cat is stressed and uncomfortable. To prevent whisker fatigue, use large or very shallow food bowls and water fountains with open designs.

Shedding Is Normal

Orange and white cat with white whiskers
Not all my cats have whiskers on their upper cheeks (genal) but you can clearly see Sunshine’s here.

Just like other hairs on your cat’s body, whiskers shed and regrow. If you notice whiskers falling out frequently, reach out to your vet. Causes include allergies, acne, fungal infections, or skin infections.

It’s also okay if a whisker breaks every now and then. This is common, especially with kittens who are always playing rough! Mama cats also sometimes chew a kitten’s whiskers to shorten them and make nursing easier. This should dissipate as the kitten is weaned.

Never trim or cut your cat’s whiskers – they need them! Trimming whiskers could cause disorientation and make playing, hunting, and just walking around challenging. It also increased the risk for injury and could increase stress. Remember, a cat’s whiskers are almost like a standalone sense.

By LizsKittyBootCamp

I foster cats and kittens, specializing in behavioral cases.

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