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Fab cat

Why does my pet have whiskers?

In the first of a new feature answering common questions about pets, Petplan investigates the science behind something ordinay but essential to animals

As ships and aeroplanes have radars, pets have their own navigational tools – whiskers. Vibrissae, as they’re technically known (from the Latin vibrare, to vibrate) aren’t just cosmetic, but are extraordinary sensory devices that help our furry friends explore and understand the world.

Almost all mammals have them, although vibrissae are the only hairs that humans have completely lost. Their roots run far deeper into the animal’s skin than the fur on the rest of the body, and connect with many more nerve endings. Sensitive to vibrations as well as touch, whiskers tell our cats, dogs or rabbits a lot about the size and shape of nearby objects in the dark. The neural ‘pathways’ that carry information from the whiskers to the brain are similar to the pathways that transmit messages from our human hands to our brain. In fact, vibrissae have been likened to having fingers growing out of the face!

Vibrissae grow most visibly on animals’ faces, clustered in three main groups – above the eyes, on the sides of the cheeks and further back on the cheeks. Different breeds have different types: some curly-haired dogs (such as the Bedlington Terrier) and cats (such as the Devon Rex) also have curly whiskers. Dogs have up to 20 whiskers on each side of their upper lips, while cats average 12 on each side of their noses. Like cats, a rabbit’s whiskers are as long as the body is wide, which help gauge the width of openings in the dark – handy in underground warrens! Whiskers above the eyes provide a blinking reflex, so if something flies at the animal’s face, their whiskers signal to their brain to close their eyes quickly. For cats, shorter whiskers on the back of the front legs help them land safely and detect prey.

Mood detectors

Whiskers may – along with other body language, such as the position of the ears and tail – give clues to a cat’s mood. If the whiskers are relaxed and sticking out sideways, they’re calm; pushed forwards, they’re excited and alert; flattened against their cheeks, they are angry or scared.

Whiskers fall out and re-grow naturally. Never cut or remove them as pets need their whiskers, and without them may become disorientated or insecure. Luckily, rabbits, dogs and cats aren’t like squirrels, which can’t usually maintain balance without their whiskers.