One of the cutest and most well-known features a cat has, besides their ears and unique irises, are their whiskers. Long, pointy, and frankly a little alien-looking, these mystifying hairs have prompted many behavioralists and scientists to understand why whiskers exist, what functions they have (if any), and why cats are one species that have them.
Surprisingly, figuring out why cats have whiskers, and what cats use their whiskers for, is a lesson in anatomy and psychology! Check out the main functions and purposes for what whiskers are good for:
It’s easy to think that whiskers are longer, more shiny hairs on your cat’s body. However, whiskers are a stronger hair type connected to the nervous system and musculature of every feline. Called vibrissae, these sturdy hairs are connected to many nerves at the follicle and constantly analyze and feedback information to your cat’s brain. The next time you observe your cat, see how often the whiskers move and sense everything around them.
Whiskers are not only a link to the nervous system, but they assist in your cat’s ability to measure and calculate spaces and sounds around them. The fine sensory receptors could be considered an extra pair of eyes, ears, and arms. When your cat jumps onto a surface, squeezes through a couch or kitchen counter, and hunts for their toys, whiskers are a major part of their ability to move successfully. Constant measuring, using the nerves that whiskers are connected to, give your feline valuable information to know what’s possible. However, many of us have witnessed when a cat has bit off a bit more than they could chew! No measurement is perfect 100% of the time, after all!
Whiskers are most known for their signature look on a cat's upper lips, giving the unique and iconic silhouette of felines. Did you know that whiskers are not only on a cat’s face? You can find whiskers above their eyes, aiding in their ability to know how far away a prey or toy might be. These vibrissae are shorter and finer, yet they are just as connected to the nervous system for stimuli. Check your kitty’s jawline and backs of the legs for hidden whiskers too! All of these spots are finely tuned for spatial accuracy and successful navigation of the world around them.
While we love observing and wondering what our cats may be feeling at any given moment, research and science have provided us with clues to know what your feline could be thinking about or experiencing. Whiskers are one of many visual cues that can help us understand what’s on their mind. A calm cat will likely have balanced, centered whiskers. A spooked or scared cat can flatten their whiskers against their face; think about the iconic shape a cat takes when approached by another cat, and they flatten their front half to avoid conflict. When it’s time to play, whiskers are typically front and center, attempting to locate and measure how far away a toy is from their body to make an accurate pounce or chase route.
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