Thursday, June 16, 2011

How a Cat's Whiskers Help Them See in the Dark

By Linda Cole

Cats have 12 whiskers on each side of their nose. These whiskers help a cat navigate through darkness, and they can also tell us how the cat is feeling. A cat would be lost without their whiskers, which are remarkable communication antennas that make it possible for a cat to “see” in the dark.

Each whisker on a cat's face has nerve endings that lead to the brain. Cat's have reinforcement whiskers on the back of their front legs, a few on the cheek, under their chin and above their eyes. The whiskers on each side of the cat's face are set in four rows. Most cats have 12 on each side, 24 in total, but some can have more. The whiskers on the top two rows can move independently from the bottom rows and the middle is where the strongest whiskers are found.

Cat whiskers are super sensitive, and cats receive valuable information via their whiskers by picking up air pressure and air currents. Changes in air currents and vibrations help cats locate prey in the dark. They can't see a mouse rummaging around at night or in a darkened room, but they can feel its presence via their whiskers which also help them smell. Cats are able to navigate around the furniture or outside the home at night because as air currents move around objects, the whiskers pick up the change in the current which tells them exactly where an object is. It's the same for a mouse or other small animals cats prey on. Their whiskers tell them how far away the prey is and even “shows” them the shape of the prey.

Cats can't see anything right in front of their nose. The whiskers on the back of their front legs help them find a mouse, food or toy right in front of them. When you see a cat wrapping their front legs around something, they are using the whiskers on their legs to find it. Damaged whiskers put a cat at a disadvantage and it causes them to misread where a mouse is at. Whiskers tell a cat everything they need to know about their environment.

Cats are even particular about the kind of bowl their owner uses to feed them in. Bowls with sides can be irritating to eat out of for most cats, especially if it has high sides and is small. If you have a cat who doesn't eat well, this could be the problem. Because the whiskers are connected directly to their nervous system, each time the cat brushes against the sides of the bowl, it's irritating. If you notice your cat pulling her whiskers back as she eats, that's because she's trying not to touch the side. The best feeding bowl is a flat plate.

A game my cats like to play requires a deep bowl with high sides. One of their favorite cat treats is a new one from CANIDAE called TidNips™. I drop a few TidNips treats in a deep bowl or box with a hole cut in the top for them to stick their leg in. They like to poke their paw in the hole and search for the treat. The whiskers on their leg let them know when they have found it. Sometimes they're more interested in just batting it around inside the box. But whether they eat the treat right away or play with it, this is a good way to give them some stimulating play time.

Whiskers are as wide as a cat's body and they use them to decide if they can get through an opening or not. If you watch a cat start to walk through a tight spot, stop, stick their head through, back up and then try again, it's because the cat is making a whisker test to make sure she can get through the opening without getting stuck; if the hole passes the test, she knows it’s safe to go through.

Whiskers also indicate how a cat is feeling. A cat that is defensive, bothered by something or mad will pull their whiskers back. This is a cat's body language saying to leave them alone. Whiskers pulled forward says they're happy, relaxed or they see something really interesting. If you've ever watched your cat staring at a mouse or bird, they can get so excited in anticipation of catching either one that they pull their whiskers so far forward it looks like they're trying to curl their whiskers around the prey. That's a curious and excited cat.

Julia Williams wrote an excellent article last November titled “Lessons I've Learned From My Cats.” If you haven't read it yet, please do. It's one of my favorites.

Read more articles by Linda Cole


  1. Great post. Whiskers are so important to the cats. It is no wonder that blind cats can do so well. Interesting info. Thanks.

  2. Thanks. I love learning about my cat. Cats are pretty amazing so it is nice to learn about them.


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