Cats use whiskers to take in information about their immediate environment—that is the primary purpose of whiskers.
Whiskers are also part of cats' body language. If you can read what these revealing appendages are saying, you're on your way to becoming a "cat whiskerer."
Of course, whiskers look great, too.
Where Are Whiskers Located?
We're all familiar with cats' prominent whiskers on their muzzles, which fan out starting near the nose. Did you know that cats also have whiskers above their eyes, on the sides of their faces, on their chins, and on the back of their front legs?
Whiskers Are Like Antennae
Whiskers are highly sensitive, filled with sensory nerves that detect solid surfaces, vibrations, (the scientific name for whiskers is vibrassae) and subtle wind currents. Whiskers are like sentries, sending back a steady stream of data to the cat's brain (Central Command).
Since cats' facial whiskers, on average, extend out to about the width of their bodies, cats use them to gauge whether they can fit through a narrow passage.
Cats consider the feedback from their whiskers in addition to what they see, smell, hear, and touch with their skin when exploring unfamiliar terrain.
The eyebrow whiskers protect cats' eyes by triggering a blinking response when debris touches them. They serve the same function when cats walk through thick brush.
Whiskers Provide Advantages When Hunting
Cats' whiskers allow them to silently move about and stalk prey in the dark without bumping into obstacles, which would slow their pursuit and/or give away their position. When walking in dim light, cats typically point their muzzle whiskers forward to serve as an early warning system that helps them avoid obstructions. Not only do cats’ whiskers feel objects, they also report on tiny changes in air flow and pressure that occur near structures such as trees and buildings. Cats process these signals to estimate the distance, size, shape, and movement of nearby objects even when it's difficult or impossible to see them.
When cats catch mice at night, their whiskers help guide them as they subdue their prey and move in to deliver the killing neck bite. Among other things, the whiskers' contact with the prey helps cats determine whether it is struggling to get away or poses a threat.
Whiskers as Part of Cats' Body Language
Did you know?
Cats can move the top two rows of their muzzle whiskers independently of the other rows.
In order to interpret non-vocal feline communications, one must consider the cat's posture, the orientation of the cat's ears and tail, the dilation of the cat's pupils, and other factors—including circumstances. How the muzzle whiskers are positioned can provide clues as to what a cat is thinking and conveying, but this must be taken in context with the rest of the cat's body language. With those caveats, here are the general rules for deciphering whisker language:
- Whiskers pulled back: threatened, defensive, apprehensive
- Whiskers at sides, neither pulled back nor pushed forward: relaxed
- Whiskers forward: curious, hunting, gathering information about surroundings, excited, aggressive
Be Considerate to Whiskers
Some cats may be uncomfortable eating out of narrow bowls because their whiskers keep brushing up against the sides. Although each cat's tolerances are different, you may want to give a kitty a food bowl that is wider and/or has low sides.
Never trim whiskers. Cats need the entire length of their whiskers. Occasionally, a whisker will fall out; eventually a new one grows back.
Whiskers: Exquisitely Essential
Whiskers perform many important functions for cats. They're part of a cat's charm, too—every cat has a unique set of expressive, impressive-looking whiskers.