June plays host to a lot of awesome things here at the shelter including CAT MONTH!
Today on the blog, we’re taking an up close look at one of the most curious of cat features… whiskers!
Ahh whiskers, is there anything more definitively “cat like”? Ask any child to draw a cat and you will likely see a snazzy set of whiskers adorning that feline’s nose in no time. Sure they’re cute, but have you ever stopped to wonder just what exactly a whisker is or why cats have them? If you have, you are in luck, because we did too!
Not hair at all!
As humans we often confuse “whiskers” with “hair”, probably because we refer to hair or stubble from beards or moustaches to also be “whiskers”. In the world of felines; however, whiskers are not the same thing at all! What we commonly refer to as “whiskers” on a cat are actually “vibrissae” or tactile hair. These structures differ from regular hair because they are longer and thicker, filled with nerves, have large follicles with a larger blood supply and have identifiable connections to the animal’s “somatosensory cortex”. The somatosensory cortex is the part of the brain responsible for sensing things like touch, pain, temperature and where your body is in a space. So in humans, if we did a scan to look for brain activity while you touched something, we would see neurons activate in your somatosensory cortex – this is the same thing for animal whiskers!
Whiskers are a part of a cat’s sensory system, which means they are filled with sensitive nerve endings. In fact, a cat’s whiskers are so sensitive that they can even detect tiny changes in breezes or airflow while they are walking around. Unlike humans, cats are covered in fur, so their skin is not as sensitive to changes in the environment, so it’s whiskers to the rescue!
Because cats use their whiskers to sense important things about their environment, a cat’s whiskers should never be cut or groomed. This not only robs a cat of important environmental information, but it can hurt them too! Because cats get so much sensory information from their whiskers, cutting the whiskers off can lead to cats becoming dizzy and disoriented. The best comparison for humans are the tiny hairs in our inner ears that help us with our balance and orientation. If you spin around really fast or go on a fast moving carnival ride, that is what it feels like when that orientation system gets confused or stops working. Some people compare cutting a cat’s whiskers off with making a human wear a blindfold for a few weeks, because cats rely on their whiskers just like we rely on our eyesight. In addition to making a cat disoriented, a cat’s whiskers are so sensitive that cutting them or even just playing with them can also cause a cat discomfort or pain. For some cats (but not all cats), even having a dish that pushes on the whiskers as the cat eats can be uncomfortable. This is why some cats prefer to eat out of wide bowls or off of flat plates.
Another cool fact? Cats don’t just have whiskers on their nose! Most cats will have multiple whiskers on both sides of their nose, but they will also have whiskers on the backs of their front legs, chin and just above their eyes!
A measuring tape!
A cat’s whiskers can tell the cat a lot about what is happening in their environment, but they also tell a cat about where he or she will fit in their environment too! If your cat is at a healthy weight, they can use their whiskers to gauge whether or not they can fit through an enclosed space. For most cats, if their whiskers fit then they will fit too. Unfortunately, if you cat is carrying extra weight around, this system will likely not work as well and your kitty may find themselves in a tight squeeze.
In addition to measuring enclosed spaces, whiskers also help cats judge the rest of their special environment. Part of what allows cats to be so graceful is the sensory information that they get from their whiskers. Whiskers are often referred to as a “proprioceptor”. “Proprioception” is an animal’s (or human’s) ability to judge where their body is in a space. If you are very clumsy then you probably have a hard time judging where your body is in relation to the space around you (you don’t have great proprioception). Whereas if you are a professional athlete or like running obstacle courses you probably have pretty good proprioception! Cats will use their whiskers to judge where they are in a space and if you have ever watched your cat perform some impressive acrobatics you are seeing those proprioceptors at work! Cats can use their whiskers as part of a method for visually judging distance and can also use whiskers to navigate in near darkness by using them to judge spaces they cannot see. Cats even use whiskers for hunting prey they can’t see well by sensing changes in air vibration!
They are hunting tools!
When cats are hunting (or pouncing on a toy in the house), they will use their whiskers to determine where their toy (or prey) is. Cats are farsighted, so they don’t see well close up. Using the whiskers on their legs and chin, cats are able to keep track of their prey for up close hunting and playing.
Part of a body language system!
A cat that is scared or fearful will typically tuck their whiskers back against their face while a cat that is curious, excited or alert will push their whiskers forward. A cat that is relaxed and content will have whiskers that aren’t really moving at all. If a cat is suddenly startled, you will probably see their whiskers “puff out” just like the rest of the hair on the cat’s body.
We hope this gives you a new appreciation of your feline friends. Here at Calgary Humane Society we know that cats are super cool and we will be sharing more with you about our feline friends very soon! If you have something you would like to see covered about cats, let us know by sharing on our Facebook group or emailing email@example.com!
Happy cat month, everyone!