All dogs and cats have whiskers, even the hairless breeds. The proper name for them is vibrissae, and there is more to them than simply being coarse hairs.
Located randomly on either side of the dog’s muzzle, over the top lip, along the eye ridge and under the chin, vibrissae are sensory organs and are among the first hairs to develop in utero and are present at birth.
Rooted up to three times deeper in the skin than regular hairs, the follicles that hold vibrissae have a blood supply and are rich in nerve endings that send information to the dog’s brain. Vibrissae are sensitive enough to detect even small changes in air currents. It is said that a dog’s whiskers are similar in sensitivity to a human’s fingertips. So where we explore the world with our hands, dogs use their faces.
Whiskers are also able to give dogs information about the shape, size and even velocity of nearby objects. This is important because vision is not the canine’s most highly-developed sense. Whiskers help dogs to maneuver in the dark, and to assess navigation in tight spaces. Since they are so sensitive to even small vibrations, they can also help alert dogs to impending danger. Vibrissae are mobile, and pets can direct them towards items of interest and can even retract them up to ¼ inch.
An article in Psychology Today states1, “Furthermore, 40 percent of the part of the brain set aside to process touch in the dog is devoted to a map of the whiskers.”
Dr. Erin Flood, DVM of Clinton, Maine says, “These extra thick hairs have special nerve receptors deeply imbedded in the hair follicle. They immediately give information to the sensory nervous system, allowing the dog to navigate their environment with innate ease. They help with the dog’s farsightedness. Passing along such data as where small objects are under the muzzle, what size things are, how tight the space is around them, how fast something is moving, and the current airflow. Also, whiskers will bristle when a dog is feeling defensive and signals that to the other dog. All of this aids in hunting, eating, navigation, and play. So, those whiskers are telling those crazy dogs that zoom around like wild banshees how fast they’re going, when to blink to protect their eyes while tearing through the brush, and how the other dog they are playing with is feeling.”
As a groomer, there is not much I enjoy more than the look and feel of a well-clipped, smooth poodle face. But with the above information in mind, I must admit I cringe a little every time I put a clipper on a muzzle to create that lovely appearance. Even when I trim a short style on other breeds, letting those whiskers fall to the table gives me cause to hesitate. And how does a groomer clip a sporting breed to velvety smoothness and still leave the vibrissae behind? I haven’t figured that one out yet.
One research paper I read referred to such grooming as “Amputation of Vibrissae2.” That sounds grim, don’t you think? Sure, they grow back, and I have shaved or trimmed off millions of whiskers over the years without any obvious harm, but it does make me wonder if I am doing a disservice to pets when I do so.
An article on the American Kennel Club website sites the importance of whiskers on dogs, and goes on to state3, “The next time you’re at the groomer, let them know to leave those whiskers alone.”
A favorite local veterinarian has chided me about trimming whiskers, telling me it is cruel and unnecessary. What if I am, indeed, causing a dog sensory deprivation in order to make its appearance pleasing to me and its owners?
It is widely accepted that vibrissae on cats should never be trimmed, but groomers have been casually lopping them off of dogs since we first picked up scissors. Cat whiskers are different from dogs in only a few small ways. Unlike the random placement we find on canines, felines have 12 whiskers on each side of their face, symmetrically distributed. Whiskers can also be found above their eyes, near their ears, and there are carpal vibrissae located on their front legs. These sensory organs help cats achieve hunting success by detecting minute vibrations from their prey. Feline whiskers are roughly the width of their bodies, which help cats determine what size spaces their lithe bodies can fit in.
The only time I’ve ever intentionally trimmed vibrissae on a cat is when I find long, curling whiskers threatening to irritate an eye (usually on Persians). And even then I merely shorten the length back a bit.
This information is shared to provide “food for thought” for fellow groomers. The way we groom has changed dramatically since I bought my first pair of clippers. We are constantly becoming more educated about our products and practices, and improving the way we work to make it better for the pets we care for.
Continual learning is key to our evolving as an industry, and hopefully you will occasionally wonder, “What about whiskers?” after reading these words. ✂️