Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?

"Why do cats have whiskers?" is a common question for new cat owners. A cat's whiskers help him do several things, including find his way around or measure openings that may be too small for your pet to fit through. Cat owners can also use whisker position to judge their pet's mood.

On average, a cat has 12 long whiskers (also called vibrissae or tactile hairs) on either side of his nose. Shorter whiskers can also be found on your cat's eyebrows, jawline and on the back of his front legs. Whisker hair is longer and thicker than your cat's fur, and the sensitive whiskers are more deeply rooted than his fur. Whiskers are connected to muscle so they can easily move back and forth. They are connected to your cat's nervous system so that he can detect and respond to changes in his environment.

Whiskers Help a Cat Find His Way

A cat's whiskers help him navigate through his surroundings. Not only do they operate like curb feelers on an old car, alerting your cat to actual objects they encounter, whiskers also help a cat find his way by alerting him to changes in air currents in a room. These changes in air currents keep your cat from bumping into the furniture or running into other members of the household.

You may notice that your cat moves his whiskers forward as he enters a room. The top two rows of whiskers can move independently of the other whiskers, and this change in direction helps your cat gather information on the room and its contents so he can go through it without mishap.

Whiskers Help a Cat Measure Space

Whiskers also help your cat judge the width of a space he may try to enter. A cat's whiskers grow to the width of his body, which means that thin cats have shorter whiskers than fat ones. If the whiskers touch the sides of an opening after your cat sticks his head in, he is alerted to the fact that he won't fit through, and he won't go into the opening.

Whiskers Help a Cat Owner Determine Mood

Now that you know whiskers help your cat, they can also help you interpret your pet's mood. Content cats hold their whiskers slightly to the side, while curious cats push their whiskers slightly forward to gather information on the new item that's presented to them. Frightened cats hold their whiskers back against their cheeks to appear less threatening, while angry cats also pull back their whiskers.

Whisker Care

Although you may be tempted to trim your cat's whiskers, don't do it! Your cat's body determines the length of his whiskers, and he won't be able to accurately judge the width of an opening with trimmed whiskers. Your cat may lose whiskers from time to time, which is no cause for alarm. Whiskers are normally shed like other hairs in your cat's coat.