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Cats are known for their elegant whiskers that add to their charm and mystique. Yet how does a cat use their whiskers and what’s the function of these fascinating sensory organs?
The cat’s whiskers are also known as vibrissae, are long, stiff hairs located on a cat’s muzzle, above their eyes, and on the backs of their front legs. These whiskers are rooted deep in a cat’s skin and are attached to a sensitive nerve ending, making them highly responsive to touch and vibrations in the environment.
One of the primary functions of whiskers is to help cats navigate, detect movement, hunt, and stalk prey in low light conditions – this was particularly important to the cat’s ancestors. When hunting prey, cats rely on their eyesight, but in low light conditions, their vision is limited. Cats have poor close-range vision – it’s suggested that cats are unable to focus on anything that’s less than 30 centimetres away from them. This is where the whiskers can help the cat. These long hairs help cats sense the location, size, and shape of objects in their surroundings. As a cat moves, its whiskers brush against things, providing valuable information about that thing’s location and distance, allowing the cat to move through the environment with ease. Ultra high-speed cameras have been used to capture how the muscles at the base of the whiskers move forward to detect the object of interest, almost moving in front of the cat’s mouth, helping them to attack when needed.
Cats also use their whiskers to judge whether they can fit through small spaces. The length of their whiskers are the same length as their body, and it is the whiskers length and flexibility that allow the cat to sense whether an opening is too narrow for them to pass through without getting stuck. This is why cats are often able to manoeuvre through tight spaces with ease.
Whiskers are also an essential part of a cat’s communication system. Cats use their whiskers above their eyes and on around their mouth to express their mood and intentions. Typically, when a cat is happy or relaxed, their whiskers are extended outward from their face. When a cat is feeling threatened or aggressive, their whiskers may retract back towards their face.
Interestingly, whiskers are not just located on a cat’s face. They can also be found on the backs of their front legs around the ankle area, where they serve a similar purpose to those on their face, helping the cat to detect the movement of prey such as while holding that prey with their front paws, and to detect possible threats.
As we can see, the cat whiskers are highly sensitive and enable them to make sense of their environment They also serve as an important communicative function and, therefore, they should never be trimmed or cut. Altering cats’ whiskers can cause them a great deal of pain and distress, and as they serve as a cat’s primary source of sensory input, cutting these can cause disorientation and confusion.
Next time you admire your cat’s whiskers, remember how important they are to their well-being and survival – and when you’re interacting with them and their toy, see you if can spot those super fast and subtle whisker movements to catch that toy.
- Bradshaw, J. W. S., Casey, R. A., & Brown, S. L. (2012). The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat. CABI.
- Schaffer, J. (2018). Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed. Random House.
- Turner, D. C., & Bateson, P. (2000). The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour. Cambridge University Press.