Tuesday, June 1, 2010
By Ruthie Bently
I have three stepchildren, and the oldest one was on a whisker clipping kick when he was still a pre-teen. He clipped off the whiskers of several cats at his grandmother’s until I caught him one day. Being a responsible pet owner I tried to reason with him. I asked him if he knew why cats had whiskers. He looked at me as if I had grown another head, and said no. I said I had read an article that mentioned cats need their whiskers for their sense of balance and to determine the spatial dimensions around them. He asked me if the cat would still be able to balance without whiskers.
I told him that cats measure a space with their whiskers; if their whiskers brush the sides of the space or will not fit into where they want to go a cat will not enter because they know their body won’t fit either. That is why the whiskers on a larger or more obese cat are so long. Whiskers can help a cat be more able footed than we might give them credit for. Cutting a cat’s whiskers disables this ability and can be dangerous for the cat if it is attempting to flee.
A cat’s whiskers are actually connected to nerves through the muscles they are connected to. This is why a cat will yowl if you tug on its whiskers – it hurts! Liken it to someone tugging on your fingernail. The attachment to muscles is also what makes a cat’s whiskers mobile. A cat can actually sense the changes in the air currents. In a room of the house, this enables them to maneuver around and through furniture as they feel the air flow around the furniture. This may be why blind cats are able to get around a house so well.
Cats also use their whiskers to display their emotions. An angry cat will lay back their whiskers until they are flat against the body. A cat that is frightened will flatten its whiskers so they are lying next to the body in order to make themselves look less like a threat. A curious cat will extend their whiskers either partially or fully in front of them toward the direction of their interest. A contented cat’s whiskers will be held out to the sides in a relaxed mode.
Cats don’t just have whiskers on either side of their nose. They also have whiskers on the back of their front legs, as well as their jaw line and eyebrows. Whiskers are stiffer and longer than the rest of a cat’s hair and they do shed them, though less frequently than they shed regular hair. Kittens are born with whiskers that stiffen up with time and get larger as the kitten grows. Most cats have between ten and fifteen whiskers on either side of their nose. Whiskers are also known as tactile hairs or vibrissae.
Outside, a cat can judge the air currents and get away from something chasing them, because they feel the change in the air around them. Cats also use their whiskers to feel temperature changes in their environment. This is probably how mine know when there is an open door they can scoot through when I am advancing with the nail clippers. Cats use their whiskers when hunting as they sense subtle changes in vibration around them. They use the whiskers on the backs of their legs to judge where the prey they’re hunting is and how large it is.
After I told my stepson why cats have whiskers, he apologized to all the cats whose whiskers he had clipped. While some of the cats had to deal with shorter whiskers for a bit, the majority were spared the indignity of having their whiskers cut. And when he caught his little brother with scissors and a gleam in his eye, he taught him why it isn’t good to clip the whiskers on a cat.
Read more articles by Ruthie Bently