How Your Kitty Uses Radar

Whiskers are tiny communications devices

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Your cat has several rows of whiskers, usually 12 arranged in rows, and a few over her eyes. You may also see them along her jawline, near her ears, and on the back of her front legs. All these whiskers, or “vibrissae,” are stiff tactile hairs that help your cat learn about her environment.

While the whiskers themselves are just thick hairs, they are deeply rooted into follicles in the skin that have lots of nerve endings and blood vessels. The nerves conduct signals back to the brain and may be connected to muscles.

When a cat’s whisker brushes against an object or is moved by a breeze, it bends, triggering the touch receptors in the follicle. The amount of pressure exerted on the whisker tells your cat about the size, shape, and location of the object or animal that has been detected, as well as how fast it is approaching (or how quickly your cat is moving toward it).

One well-known use for whiskers is to help your cat measure an opening to decide if she can fit through it. Longer facial whiskers extend out as wide as the cat’s body, so if her head and whiskers can get through a space, the rest of the cat should be able to follow. This can obviously be problematic for an overweight cat, whose body exceeds the range of her whiskers (yet another reason to help your cat maintain a healthy weight).

The whiskers over your cat’s eyes help protect her delicate corneas by triggering the blinking reflex when something touches them. This prevents anything from touching and potentially damaging the eye.

The whiskers on the back of your cat’s front legs help her to feel the orientation of prey that she has caught in her paws. They also aid in foot placement as she jumps, which helps her to land so delicately.

Behavioral Clues

The position of your cat’s whiskers can help you to evaluate her mood. A calm, relaxed cat will have relaxed whiskers, while a cat who is anxious or feels threatened will fan them out, erect, to take in as much information as possible. Cats who are hunting or playing will have their whiskers forward on full alert. A scared cat may pull her whiskers back close to her body to make herself appear small and to protect them from damage. If your cat is happy, she can elevate the whiskers over her eyes, contributing to the bright-eyed, cheery expression that we all know and love.

Damaged or Missing Whiskers

Like all hairs, whiskers are shed and grow back in. There is no need to be concerned if you notice a couple whiskers missing. This is a natural process, and she won’t shed all of her whiskers at once.

Cut or damaged whiskers can cause some difficulties for your cat, however. If whiskers are trimmed, they can’t transmit correct information to your cat. She may misjudge distances or try to fit through an opening that is not big enough for her. This can cause confusion and distress.

To get an idea of what a cat whose whiskers have been cut is experiencing, close or cover one of your eyes as you walk around your house and pick up several items. You may find that your depth perception is a little off! The good news is that the trimmed whiskers will grow back, and in the meantime the cat will adjust.

Never pluck a whisker! It’s painful, as whiskers are deeply rooted in the skin and have nerve endings in the follicle.

Hairless cats, such as the Sphinx, may have fewer whiskers than their fully-furred counterparts or have no whiskers at all, but they are used to processing the world around them without the input of these hairy sensors.

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Skilled Hunters

Whiskers are useful for cats on the hunt. As a tiny prey animal moves around, it creates vibrations in the air. Your cat’s whiskers can pick up on these vibrations, which act almost like radar to allow her to determine where the prey is and to measure the distance between them. Whiskers are one of the many reasons that your cat can find and catch a mouse in your house before you even knew it was there!

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Did You Know?

Proprioception is the awareness of the position of the body in relation to the rest of the world. This is how we—and our cats—know which way is up and are able to maneuver our bodies around objects without paying much attention. Your cat’s whiskers provide proprioceptive information that helps her to know where she is in an environment.

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