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Posted by on Oct 7, 2015 in Tell Me Why |

Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?

Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?

The whiskers on a cat’s face are actually touch receptors and serve as feelers. Scientists call whiskers vibrissae (vi-BRIS-see). These long, stiff hairs are attached to nerves in the skin, and are especially sensitive to touch.

Cats do much of their hunting at night. The whiskers help a cat feel its way in the dark and keep it from bumping into things.

Cats do not use their whiskers to measure the space through which they can walk, as some people think. If the whiskers were really used for this purpose, there would not be so many cats getting stuck in fences and drainpipes.

In short, whiskers enable cats to gauge and make sense of their environment. Cats have a sensory organ at the end of their whiskers called a proprioceptor, which sends tactile signals to the brain and nervous system.

The proprioceptor is related to the position of the body and limbs, an important part of knowing where every part of the body is so that decisions can be made for the next immediate movement. This organ makes the cat’s whiskers very sensitive to even the smallest change in the cat’s environment.

Whiskers serve another purpose besides acting as guidance, tracking, and radar systems – they also serve as a kind of barometer for the cat’s moods. When a cat is resting or content, its whiskers will be mostly immobile. But if you see the whiskers suddenly bunch up and lay flat against the cat’s face — that may be a sign that the cat is scared.

Perhaps when playing “chase the toy” with a cat, you’ll notice its whiskers are pointing forward. This is probably its “game face,” a sign that your cat is in hunting mode.

The whiskers also make it pretty easy to tell when a cat is startled or excited, because every hair on its body will be standing on end, including the whiskers, which will point almost completely forward.
Whiskers are a vital part of a cat’s mobility and sense of security.

Without whiskers, cats would not be able to achieve the great acrobatic feats that are so awe-inspiring, or protect themselves from dangerous situations.

Content for this question contributed by Melissa Newman, resident of Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California, USA