Whiskers: Fact and Fiction

What’s interesting about cat whiskers? They’re highly useful to the cat as a sensory aid and can be observed for clues about the feline mood. They’re not just located on the face. Certain breeds of cat never develop whiskers, and others have curly ones. There is a lot of fascinating stuff to read about the feline whisker, but that’s accompanied by a generous dose of nonsense. 

All whiskers are similar in structure, but not all are located on the upper lip. Nearly every domestic cat has 12 long whiskers in each side of the “mustache zone”, with several auxiliary sets scattered around the face and an additional clump on each wrist. Whiskers are much thicker, longer, and more rigid than regular hairs. Their follicles are located deep in the skin, surrounded by a dense arrangement of blood vessels, muscle fibers, and lots of sensitive nerve tissue. The nervous and vascular tissue at the whisker’s base allow it to detect even very slight movements. A light touch on the end registers instantly and is sent directly to the brain for interpretation. It’s similar to a blind person using a cane, but the supple structure of a whisker, its cluster arrangement, and its dedicated nerve supply make it so sensitive that even passing air currents can be detected and decoded. Note that there are no nerves inside the shaft of the hair. It’s just hair. 

There is lots of information on the internet about why you should never cut your cat’s whiskers. Aside from the fact that this situation arises in real life with spectacular rarity, the cited consequences of whisker-trimming are preposterously grave. Multiple sources claim that the animal will fall over, helpless, because his sense of balance will be lost. Others say he’ll lose his sense of direction completely and be unable to navigate through his own home. Still others claim that whiskers play the only role in determining whether a gap is wide enough for the cat to enter. Trimming them obliterates this information and poses the risk of your pet getting stuck someplace in your home that’s too tight for his body size. Many comparisons have been made between cutting these hairs and rendering your pet deaf or blind. Melodrama, anyone?

Whiskers are occasionally cut short by accident or by a scissors-wielding child. They sometimes need to be shorn at the vet clinic due to illness or injury. They might even fall out all at once due to chemotherapy or be gnawed off by another cat on a daily basis. There isn’t any pain when a whisker is snipped, and a cat with two working inner ears balances just fine regardless of his haircut. His eyes will continue to function, his intelligence is unaffected, and he will not be stuck behind the couch because of this. The whiskers will grow back, just like every other kind of hair. We’ve said it many a time, but it bears repeating: please, please, use a generous measure of caution when reading on the internet!

Dr. M.S. Regan