According the old wives’ tale, finding a whisker is good luck. Many wonder what whiskers really do, why they are important for cats and what happens if they are altered in anyway.
Owners tend to have varying opinions on the matter of whiskers. Some owners want to be sure groomers do not touch their kitty’s whiskers, while others are adamant the whiskers are trimmed or removed. Knowing a few whisker facts will go a long way in helping you educate cat owners while giving you assurance you are doing what is in the best interest of the felines you groom.
When you carefully look at whiskers, also called vibrissae, you will notice they are stiff and thick. Whiskers are actually two to three times as dense as cat fur. Sometimes whiskers are the same color as the feline’s coat which lead many to falsely assume whiskers are simply thicker fur. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When we look at the fur of the feline, they are either single–, double– or triple–coated. Meaning they have one, two or three hairs growing out of each hair follicle in the dermis layer of skin. The feline coat goes through a growth cycle, and when cut, usually does not have an adverse effect on the cat. Whiskers are much more complex than the coat of a feline.
Each whisker is embedded three times as deep as that of the hair follicle, and is located in the hypodermis layer of skin. A cat’s whisker has muscles at the base which allow the cat to move each whisker individually. An example of whisker movement can be seen in the forward and backward movement of the whiskers on a cat’s upper lip when they are curious or scared.
There are also nerve endings near the base of each whisker. While whiskers are very near the nerve endings, each whisker does not have its own nerve. The nerves are close enough to the vibrissa follicle that if one is pulled out, the feline will react in pain. The vibrissae follicles are individually represented in the sensory cortex of the brain. This is interesting because it means each individual whisker can directly send information to the brain to help the cat carefully consider the next move to make in their environment. The long shaft of the whisker helps felines judge space and distance. The tip of each whisker has a sensory organ called a proprioceptor that detects vibrations and these organs help the cat sense the world around them by detecting movement.
Feline faces have three sets of whiskers. The longest set, on the muzzle, are called genal whiskers and are arranged in well–defined rows and embedded in a thick pad above the upper lip. The whiskers located above the eyes are called the supraorbital whiskers. Mandibular whiskers are located along the jaw. Finally, the carpal whiskers are the set of whiskers that are located on the back of the front legs.
Now that we understand the structure of the vibrissae, what exactly do they do? The simple answer is that whiskers give the cat information about their environment to help them find food, stay safe and to effectively move around their ecosystem. While whiskers do not seem as important for house cats who are provided for and live in a safe and consistent home—compared to outside cats that need to hunt, protect themselves from predators and take care of their basic needs—the information whiskers provide is equally important for both types of felines.
The proprioceptor organs at the tip of each vibrissa let the feline know their exact place in space and allow the cat to know where their body parts are in relationship to each other. Whiskers also help the cat measure distances which allow their graceful, quick and accurate movements on narrow platforms and high surfaces. While navigating in the dark, whiskers sense the air flow around objects, letting the cat know if there is enough room for their body to comfortably pass by. When hunting, the carpal whiskers give the cat important information about how the prey is situated in their paws so the cat does not get injured, and indicates where the kill bite should be placed. Similar information is given to a feline from their vibrissae when they are playing with a toy or protecting themselves from a rough playmate. Whiskers aide not only a cat’s mobility, but keep the cat safe and provide the cat a sense of security.
When the whiskers are altered, there is damage to the sensory organ; however, they do not feel pain because cats do not have nociceptors on the whisker. That said, some owners report a change in behavior if multiple whiskers are trimmed.
Surprisingly, some cats do chew off their own whiskers. Mother cats often chew off their kittens’ whiskers to keep them from wandering away from the litter. Elderly cats who always lie on the same side against an object tend to have shorter or broken whiskers on that side of their face. While chewing or cutting whiskers does not seem to evoke a pain response, plucking does.
What does all of that mean for us as groomers? Mainly it guides us on why cat whiskers should be left intact and helps us to educate our clients when they request alterations to their feline’s whiskers. It also helps us to explain to the feline owners what is going on when a cat has altered its own whiskers.
We all know that accidents happen. The good news is if one or several whiskers accidentally get sucked into the clipper vacuum, the cat will be ok. The whiskers will grow back. The surrounding whiskers will provide enough information to help keep the cat safe and allow the cat to successfully manipulate their environment.
The main concern when whiskers get accidentally cut off is the effect on spatial awareness. If the cat lives in a home where no one (human or other pet) is chasing the cat, there is little worry. The concern comes when that cat needs to escape from a child or another pet. But if the furniture stays in the same place in the home, the cat already knows where their body fits and how to escape when needed. Having altered whiskers is a serious concern for cats that go outside because they need every advantage possible to secure food and protect themselves from predators.
Whiskers can be a sensitive topic when talking to feline owners. The best policy is to leave the whiskers natural. If a whisker is accidentally cut off, tell the owner. Let the owner know it should not affect the cat if it is inside the home. Reassure the owner, that during the regrowth process, the surrounding whiskers will take over to help the feline function in their home environment. ✂️