We have all heard the expressions “the cat’s whiskers” and/or the “Cat’s Meow,” both of which mean “tip top,” “height of perfection,” or “first rate.” These slogans popular in the 1920’s referred to the daring flappers, who were impossible to shock. The reason I am referring to these figures of speech is that even back “in the good old days,” people knew about the unique capabilities of our cat’s most sensitive hairs or at least appreciated the uniqueness of them.
A cat’s whiskers are called tactile hairs and are found on your cat’s eyebrows, chin, cheeks, and in an area behind its forelegs above the paw. The whiskers are two to three times thicker than other hairs and taper to a fine flexible tip.
There are approximately 12 of these stiff bristles in four rows coming out from either side of your cat’s muzzle. Interestingly the top row moves independently from the middle row.
At the end of each whisker is a sensory organ called a “proprioceptor” that send messages to your cat. Whiskers are connected to nerve fibers that relay messages directly to the brain. Whiskers have longer roots than your cat’s other hairs and are embedded into the cat’s body three times deeper than other hairs. The whiskers grow in proportion to a cat’s body size.
A cat uses its whiskers to hunt, to navigate its environment and to even convey its moods. During the day a cat does not need its whiskers very much. The whiskers near the eyes and nose help a cat when its vision is diminished by darkness. When you see your cat flexing its whiskers, it is learning about changes going on in the air currents or vibrations, these messages translate into indications about the movement of prey or the locations of trees and other obstacles.
It has been said a cat uses its whiskers to determine whether a hole is big enough to go into or not. This has never been proven, however, what is certain is that the whiskers on the muzzle help to determine the “bite point” on a prey’s neck. Whiskers on the forelegs collect information for the cat about the captured prey.
Cats are farsighted and they often cannot see the prey in their clutches. The leg whiskers help a cat determine the size, shape and position of their prey as well as their position relative to it. These whiskers also help to detect any attempts the prey may make to escape.
Cats use their whiskers to convey their mood of the day. The position and spread of their whiskers help to communicate their moods. There are three distinct moods whiskers will show: the whiskers being bunched up and lying flat against a cat’s cheeks shows the cat is either shy or afraid.
When your cat is tense or excited the whiskers will be bristling, fully fanned out and bending almost straightforward. If hunting both the long and short whiskers will bend forward.
When your cat is calm and/or content the whiskers are neither forward or pushed back, they just sit there on your cat’s head doing nothing.
Clipping a cat’s whiskers does impair its senses and causes it to miss its prey and other things. Messing with the position of a cat’s whiskers will more than likely get you a swat. Leave the whiskers alone. A cat will lose a whisker, as they periodically shed and you may find one lying around. Do not worry, as your cat will grow a new one.
This ends your thumbnail lesson on your cat’s whiskers and I hope you have learned something new or at least learned an appreciation for your cat’s extraordinary antennae.