CATS AND WHISKERS (First in a Series of 3)


What are whiskers?  Whiskers are thick, stiff, hair-like projections and are called ‘vibrissae’ because they vibrate when a current of air passes over them.  

How do whiskers work?  The base of each whisker is connected under the skin to a network of tiny nerves that transmit signals to the brain in nano-seconds.  The whisker vibrates in response to a mere current of air and/or touch.  The nerves notify the brain of the vibration.  Whiskers, responding to air currents and touch, guide your cat through the maze of objects in their 'jungle' inside and outside your home. 

Their whiskers operate like a GPS and radar navigational system creating a 3 dimensional map of a dark room or outdoor area. A blind cat can navigate a room by depending on their whiskers.  A cat's whiskers generally correspond to the width of its body.  This helps your cat 'measure' whether an opening is wide enough to pass or jump through.

For example, when your cat approaches a couch in total darkness, he knows there is a couch there because there are no currents in the space where the couch is. However, there are currents surrounding the couch/object.  Using the currents or lack of currents, the cat's whiskers create a navigational map.

Any damage to the whisker dramatically impairs your cat’s ability to maneuver. Therefore, never, never cut, trim or tweeze their whiskers!!  Their whiskers have been likened to a second set of ‘eyes’ that can identify objects based on the detection of air currents surrounding an object.  Inkee-Bear had a challenging whisker event which he wrote about in his last three picture and videoposts:  'I Think I Messed Up,' 'What Is It?' and 'To Ignore or Not to Ignore.'  While investigating a new box, he pulled the packaging tape off of the box and it stuck to one of his whiskers.

We do not have whiskers.  Cats do not understand this.  So, when I, their non-GPS human, walk across a room at night without turning on a light, I can hear them scrambling out of my way.  Yes, I admit stepping on cats' parts by accident.  However, after the first yowling disaster and being the quick learners that they are, I am certain I hear  them meowing or thumping their tail signaling:  “Red Alert!!  Human on the move!!”

Where are your cat's whiskers located?  

-On their muzzle (mystacial):

Muzzle whiskers are four rows of whiskers on each side of the muzzle or face.  They are connected to nerves AND muscles.  The top two rows move independently from the bottom rows.  Personally, I have problems counting the rows.  On some of my cats there are also very prominent whiskers protruding from their cheeks.  They are distinctively separate from the muzzle whiskers.

-Above their eyes:

The whiskers above their eyes protect their eyes.  An eye will automatically close when the 'eye whiskers' touch furniture, tall grass, a branch, etc.  Try gently touching your cat’s whiskers above only one of their eyes.  That eye immediately closes.  Now try the whiskers above the other eye – remember, just a gentle touch to that eye’s whiskers.

-On the underside of their wrists (carpal): 

The whiskers on the underside of a cat’s wrist or foreleg transmit information about the prey it is holding.  The cat usually can't see the prey because their paws are covering it.  The wrist whiskers tell the cat not only if the prey is still moving (dead or alive) but also the position of the prey.  They will then know where to deliver the fatal bite.  Additionally, these wrist or foreleg whiskers help a cat climb a tree, a cat tree, stairs, etc. 

We had a black cat named Georgie.  He ran at a tree, jumped three feet up landing on the trunk of the tree with all fours stretched out on either side.  He looked like a flattened pancake stuck to the tree trunk.  He stayed ‘stuck’ there until he released and, very ungracefully, dropped to the ground. He did not know how to climb a tree.  Perhaps his carpal whiskers were defective.  On the other hand, maybe he was just 'performing' because he loved hearing our laughter.  If he really could climb a tree, he never let us see it.

-Under their chin

There are whiskers under or on their chin.  One of my cats, a calico named Sophee, has very short but thick, stiff, hair-like projections under her chin. When I picked her up tonight and laid her on her back in my arms to check her chin again for the purposes of this article, her expression was:  “Have you lost your mind?  Stop touching my chin whiskers!”   I am not able to 'see'  whiskers on any of my other cats  but that doesn't mean that they aren't there.  Sophee is definitely the most agile of the Cat Authors.  I don't know if observable chin whiskers aids her more than the others.

-On the backs of their forelegs:

Some reports indicate that there are additional whiskers on the back of their front legs.  However, there are no pictures of those whiskers and I have never felt or seen any on my cats.  Therefore, perhaps they are saying ‘the back of the front legs’ when they actually mean the wrist (carpal) whiskers.  The wrist is half way up the foreleg.

Future ineresting Facts:  There are many more interesting factoids about whiskers that will be discussed in subsequent "Mews ‘N News" articles such as:

            How did whiskers get their name?

            How do whiskers reflect your cat’s mood?

            What is and what causes 'whisker stress?'

            What happens when your cat is placed in a medical neck cone?

            Do other animals have whiskers?

            Information for this article was gleaned and summarized from: Web MD, PetMD, Wikipedia, Catster, Mother Nature Network, Pussington Post, the Cat Behavior Association, ‘Today I Found’ and, last but not least, my understanding of the material presented and from experiences with my cats, including the Cat Authors.