Cat’s Whiskers: Kitty’s Amazing Sensory Tools
-By: Jo Singer, MSW, CSW, LCSW (Ret.)
Whiskers (otherwise known as vibrissae) are one of the amazing sensory tools essential to cats. They assist cats to “see” in the dark, to judge distances and spaces and to help them avoid hungry predators. Whiskers are tactile hairs that grow in patterns on a cat's muzzle, above its eyes, the ears, jaw and forelegs. At the root of each of these long, stiff hairs is a follicle packed with nerves. The whiskers can also reveal feline health problems based on the whiskers’ texture, length and shape.
Cats also communicate with their whiskers about their feelings. Taut whiskers pulled across the face can mean that the cat is feeling threatened; while relaxed whiskers pointing away from the face generally indicates a contented kitty.
Since whiskers are important, I would like to share a few inquiries from cat owners asking more about the purpose of whiskers and if they indicate any health problems. Here are my answers to their interesting questions.
Q: What happens if a cat's whiskers are cut? My cat seemed dizzy and disoriented, and he even started vomiting after his whiskers were accidentally trimmed.
A: Cats may get highly distressed when their whiskers are damaged, since they are important to their equilibrium. They may have difficulty walking or running straight, can become disoriented and can even fall. Experiments done with cats whose whiskers have been cut short have shown difficulty accurately judging distances while jumping, or occasionally running into objects. The vomiting may have resulted from anxiety.
Q: Do cat whiskers grow back, once cut off?
A: Cat whiskers generally grow back within a few weeks. Cat whiskers are made from keratin, the key structural component that makes up our hair and nails. In all animals that grows whiskers, the follicles and nerves to which the hair is attached are much larger than normal follicles, thus they grow in thicker than normal hair.
Q: Do cats shed their whiskers?
A: Cats will shed whiskers. Old ones fall out and new ones start growing to replace them. It is not uncommon to find a shed whisker on furniture or carpet, where they are easily visible. However, if too many whiskers are shed on a regular basis - and do not grow back - it is wise to consult with your veterinarian, since this could indicate a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
Q: Would short, broken cat whiskers that have split ends indicate a health issue?
A: Whenever you notice any changes in a cat's physical condition, it is always wise to consult with a veterinarian. This may be a sign that the cat has an underlying medical condition requiring treatment. Split, drooping or shriveling ends may indicate that the cat is losing weight too quickly, so a prompt visit to the vet is certainly in order.
Q: My male Persian cat was recently groomed by a highly reputable home grooming service. Without our knowledge the groomer trimmed his whiskers. Would this trimming episode cause him to start urinating on the bed in the guest room?
A: Cat’s whiskers are extremely sensitive to the touch. Just running a finger on a whisker will cause an immediate reaction. When frightened, cats often need to re-mark their territories, which may have caused this behavior. However, inappropriate elimination is always a red-flag for a vet visit to rule out bladder stones or infections.
Q: My kitten is missing all his whiskers. He has a black mark on his chin so we suspect he may have somehow burned them. Four days have passed and all he does is sleep. He is barely eating and is lethargic. What should I do?
A: If you suspect your kitten was burned, a visit to the vet is urgently needed. While kittens need a lot of sleep, lethargy and not eating are definitely symptoms that must be immediately checked out by a veterinarian. Missing all of his whiskers may also be symptomatic of underlying illness.
In conclusion, never trim cat’s whiskers. But if you are lucky enough to find a precious shed whisker around the house, hold onto it, and make a wish. It will come true according to an old wives tale.
What do you notice about your cat’s whiskers that hasn’t been covered? I will be happy to respond.