Whiskers and the cat; whats the deal?

What is it about a cat’s whiskers that leaves us puzzled…

Whiskers are a type of long, thick hair. The importance of whiskers lies in the fact that they are deeply rooted in follicles, which are surrounded by a muscle tissue that is very rich in nerves and sensory cells. These nerve cells in the roots are then connected to a special area of the cat’s brain.

While whiskers serve many functions, the main function of whiskers is to work as a type of environmental scanning system. Cats don’t actually need to touch the objects with their whiskers to detect the object, because the nerves at the base of the whiskers are actually sensitive enough to be able to pick up even small air movements, which vibrate the whiskers. Thus, the scientific term for a whisker is "Vibrissae", taken from vibrate.

Whiskers are so sensitive they can detect the slightest directional change in a breeze. At night, for example, this helps a cat slink its way through a room and not bump into anything. How? The air currents in the room change depending on where pieces of furniture are located. This is essential for cats because they are far sighted and have trouble seeing things clearly close up. Being nocturnal in nature, this also helps them “see” more clearly at night while they hunt.


 In addition to having sensory properties, a cat’s whiskers are also a good indicator of his mood. When a cat is angry or feels defensive, the whiskers will be pulled back. Otherwise, when the cat is happy, curious or content, the whiskers will be more relaxed and pushed forward.

But the whisker’s primary use is to help a cat judge whether or not he’ll fit through an opening. A cat’s whiskers are roughly as wide as his body — sort of a natural ruler. The whisker tips are sensitive to pressure. You’ll probably see a cat stick his head in and out of an opening before he puts his body in. He’s judging the width of the opening, and determining if he can fit into it.

What happens if they are cut off?

Research has shown that cats without whiskers have trouble estimating the size of openings and can easily get stuck. Also, due to the fact that whiskers are important to a cat’s equilibrium, without them, they have trouble walking straight and have difficulty running. They also tend to get disoriented and fall. Interestingly, experiments done with cats with whiskers cut short also show that they struggle to judge distances accurately and so will often misjudge jumping distances as well as occasionally run into things.

cats and dog

Whisker facts, but not taken from the show “Whisker Wars”:

Vibrissae grow in various places on most mammals, including all primates, except humans.

Like human finger prints, every cat’s whisker pattern is unique.

In addition to the obvious whiskers in horizontal rows on the ‘whisker pad’ of their cheeks, there are also whiskers between the corner of a cat’s mouth and the outer corner of the nose, on the chin, and the eyebrows, and on the back of the front legs.

“To be the cat’s whiskers" is a British idiom meaning ‘to be better than everyone else’.