2018-09-12 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Whiskers on a cat do a lot more than make the cat look cute. Cats have whiskers so they can gather information about the world around them. These sensitive tactile hairs can detect subtle air currents and vibrations, and also become a measuring instrument so a cat can determine if he can fit through an opening.

Cat whiskers are more complex than most people think. Cats have whiskers not only under the nose but also above the eyes and on the ears, on the jaw line and behind the front legs. The whiskers over the eyes are also similar to our eyebrows, shielding foreign. bodies from falling into cat’s eyes. Cat whiskers help cats see in the dark. A whisker is a long, thick hair, at the root of which is a nerve-rich follicle. When cats brush these sensitive hairs against an object in the dark, they can accurately determine its location, size, and texture. It’s almost as though a cat has “fingers” growing out of the side of his face.

Whiskers are danger and barrier detectors. By sensing changes in air currents, whiskers can help a cat Whiskers have been called “the Swiss Army knife of cat’s sensory and communication tool kit.”Whiskers have been called “the Swiss Army knife of cat’s sensory and communication tool kit.”predict when a predator or prey is approaching. Whiskers on a cat’s muzzle can determine the width of an opening since they are about equal to the width of her body. When a cat puts her head through an opening to look for danger, her whiskers will brush the sides of the opening and let her gauge whether she can fit. The small whiskers on the back of a cat’s forelegs help the cat climb trees. By using these little whiskers, cats can make perfect jumps and landings.

Feline vision is better in low-light situations. Cats can’t see very well in total darkness. When it’s completely dark, they rely on whiskers to tell them where objects are and how to move around a room.

Blind cats can navigate rooms well by just walking around and letting their whiskers get a sense of where they are spatially. This explains how Last Hope’s Dusty, a kitten who had both eyes removed because of severe infection, could land on targets like the edge of a rug, climb stairs and jump in and out of the window of his cardboard ice cream truck. Dusty was featured on Hallmark Channel’s Kitten Bowl last February.


Dusty lost both eyes to infection when a baby, but his whiskers help him find his way around with ease. Dusty lost both eyes to infection when a baby, but his whiskers help him find his way around with ease. Anatomy of Cat Whiskers: The whiskers, unlike human hair, are touch receptors more like skin than hair. Each whisker is two to three times thicker than a strand of hair. These longer, stiffer hairs, also called vibrissae (from the Latin word “to vibrate”), are embedded more deeply in the cat’s body than the shorter top-fur coat. The vibrissae are connected securely to the muscular and nervous systems, sending information about surroundings directly to the cat’s brain. There is also a sensory organ at the tip of each whisker that picks up vibrations. This helps the cat detect and respond to changes in its surroundings, almost like having feline radar.

Don’t Trim Whiskers: Cutting cats’ whiskers will disorient and scare them. They can lose their sense of balance. Trimming can be painful. Cats need their whiskers to remain their natural length. Typically a cat has 12 whiskers on each side of their face, for a total of 24, and it’s totally normal for them to shed. Just like hair, whiskers will shed and grow back but it doesn’t happen all at once.

Whiskers as Feline Emotional Barometers: A cat’s whiskers can also reflect her mood. When the whiskers are hanging loosely on either side, she’s probably relaxed. When a cat is getting ready to fight or is frightened, the whiskers are flattened against the face to prevent damage to them. When on the alert or hunting, the whiskers will face forward in prey detection. Take other body language signals, like ear and tail position or hissing, into consideration before trying to figure out what message your cat is trying to communicate.

Whisker Fatigue: It may sound silly to say whiskers can get tired, yet whisker fatigue is a problem that can alter a cat’s behavior and health. The condition
can cause lack of appetite, mood changes and stress for the cat (and owner).
Basically, whisker fatigue is over-stimulation of the sensory system of the whiskers. This may occur when the whiskers are touched too much, even if it is brushing against food and water dishes. The cat’s brain gets an overload of sensory stimulation,
which can make the kitty feel stressed out or agitated.

Some common symptoms of whisker fatigue include: refusal to eat or drink from usual dishes, pacing in front of the food bowls and meowing like something is wrong, pawing at food and water to try and pull it from the bowl and acting more aggressively around food or treats when given to cat out of the dish.

If you witness this problem, you can often fix it without veterinary intervention. Because of awareness, pet supply companies have begun creating feed trays and bowls designed to be whisker-friendly. These dishes have a wider opening and tend to be shallow so the cat’s whiskers do not brush against the sides of the bowl while they eat food or sip water. If you cannot find whisker-friendly pet dishes for your frustrated feline, feeding your cat in a shallow dish with low sides, such as a plate or saucer can offer the same relief. Of course, if your cat’s refusal to eat persists, it is time to visit your vet.

My apologies for giving readers another worry when shopping. Besides looking for gluten-free products, you will now feel compelled to become a whisker-friendly consumer. Someone once referred to feline whiskers as the “Swiss Army knife of a cat’s sensory and communications tool kit” which happens to be an absolutely “purrfect” description.

Last Hope Kittens for Adoption: “Crosby” is a handsome, mellow five-month-old fellow rescued in Holbrook now at the Last Hope Cat Center, 3300 Beltagh Ave in Wantagh, while “Caramel” is a three-month-old male tabby from a Queens yard now on display at Petco in Wantagh (which is in the Willow Wood Shopping Center on Wantagh Ave).

Call 631-671-2588 for more info about these and other Last Hope cats.

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