Pop Quiz Time!
Let's see how much you know about cat whiskers....
- How do the cat's whiskers differ from the soft hair, or "cat fur", covering its body?
- On how many places of a cat's body are these unique hairs located?
- Name 4 ways a cat uses these special "feelers".
- Cat whiskers are also known as ______________ and ________________.
- True or False: A cat's whiskers should never be trimmed.
- Bonus Question: What auto accessory, most popular during the 1940's and 1950's, was most likely inspired by cat whiskers?
Ok...pencils down...or in computerland...mouses down!
So, how'd you do?
If you found yourself stumped by some of the questions, don't feel badly...
you're not alone! Who would think there would be so much to cat whiskers?
For something seemingly so simple, a whisker really is a very complex part of the cat's body.
So, What Exactly Is a Cat Whisker?
The whisker of a cat is a specialized hair that is long, flexible, strong and very thick. The technical name for this type of hair is vibrissa, for one hair, or vibrissae,
the plural, for more than one hair.
The whiskers, or vibrissae, are at least two times thicker than the hairs that make up the cat's coat and are embedded about three times deeper than normal cat hair.
Though the whiskers themselves do not contain nerves, they do have tactile sensation associated with them, hence sometimes being called "tactile hairs" (tactile meaning: "connected by the sense of touch").
The tactile sensation is due to the whisker growing from a follicle that is encased in a capsule of blood, known as a blood sinus.Back to Pop Quiz!
When the cats whiskers are touched, pushed against something or experience changes in air pressure, it causes the hairs to bend, which cause the blood in the sinus to be pushed to one side or the other. As this movement is amplified by the blood, surrounding nerves act as sensory devices, detecting even the smallest sensations and relaying the message to the brain of the cat.
Looking for Whiskers...
Now as far as where on a cat's body you will find whiskers...the most common place that most people think of is on the cats face between the outer edges of the nose and the top corners of the mouth.Back to Pop Quiz!
Some refer to this area as the "whisker pad".
Look closely and you'll see that the whiskers aren't just growing
"willy nilly"...there is an organized pattern with the cat whiskers growing in horizontal rows. The average cat has 16 to 24 whiskers, 8 to 12 on each side of the nose.
For increased precision in evaluating potential objects or obstructions, the upper 2 rows of whiskers can be moved independently of the other rows. Note, the shorter vibrissae is in the front and longer in the back.
So, that's one place for whiskers...next, look above the cats eyes where you'll find a few "tufts", a few on its cheek, bristles on its chin and finally, on the back of it's forelegs, just above the paw you'll find a whisper of whiskers!
Add it up and that is a total of at least 5 places on a cat's body where whiskers are located.
Putting the Cat's Whiskers to Use...Hunting and Navigation
As we begin to think about how cats use their whiskers, let's first think about what cats predominately are....
They are hunters...typically nocturnal hunters. So, if a cat is hunting at dusk or later, there will be decreased light. Though we know that the cat's eyes (link) are able to see in light 6 times less than humans, there are factors which come into play that create the need for additional sensory input if the hunt is to be successful.
Imagine your cat is hunting...a barely perceptible air-current shift moves the whisker as the prey, say a field mouse, moves...information is processed by the cats brain alerting it that there is a solid object close by. Keep in mind the cat knows all this without having to physically touch anything.
So, why would this be important? If the cat is hunting live prey, even in the dark, it can instantly hone in on the intended catch and "attack". If a cat has damaged whiskers, or has been the victim of having its whiskers cut or trimmed (link) it will tend to misjudge it's hunting pounce and misplace it's "killing-bite"...for a cat depending on hunting for it's food, a mis-placed killing-bite could mean an unsuccessful hunt and unnecessary suffering on the intended prey.
Cat Paw Whiskers...
In the instance where the cat has the prey trapped under its front paws, it is difficult for the cat's eyes to focus on the close object.
It is now that the cat might use the whiskers on the forelegs to accurately sense the size and shape of its prey as well as movement and escape attempts.
For cats living the preferred indoor-only lifestyle, the change in air-current as it flows around furniture allows the cat to navigate through even the darkest rooms, with nary a bump.
Cats Whiskers For Measuring
Have you ever noticed that different cats have different length of whiskers? If you look at most cats from head on, you will see that its facial whiskers extend outward just about as wide as its body.
Perhaps you've seen a cat put its head into an opening, then pull it out. When a cat does this, it's actually "measuring" the space to see if it will fit.
On occasion I've witnessed my own cat, Britches, performing this act. What makes this especially interesting is that she performs it with familiar objects...
her "sauna" napping tent and nighttime sleeping crate.
A couple of interesting cat facts:
- Cats do not have a true collarbone...as a result, by twisting and squeezing, they are able to manipulate their bodies to fit into some incredibly tight spaces.
It is said that if a cat's head and shoulders will fit through a hole, the rest of the body will follow...another reason why a cat's whiskers should never be trimmed or cut...it would alter their ability to properly judge spaces.
- Though most cats use their whiskers to measure openings and entrances, not all. For instance, most of the Sphynx cats do not have whiskers, so they rely on their muzzle to assist them in "measuring" small holes and openings.
The vibrissae on the cat's eyebrows serve as a "warning" device for possible danger to the eyes. Whether it is from air-current or physical touch to the cat's "eye whisker", the reflex is for the eye to close, protecting it from snapping twigs, blowing grass or flying debris.
If you have ever watched a cat stalking...whether it is live prey or a favorite toy, the cat's gaze is targeted on the object...not the surrounding environment and possible "eye danger". The eyebrow vibrissae provides vital protection for our mighty feline hunters.
Communication of Mood
Cat whiskers play a clear role in a cat's body language. For example, just as the position of a cat's tail communicates mood, the position of the facial whiskers do as well.
What Your Cat Is Saying
- Cat whiskers pushed forward: I am relaxed, content, happy or curious.
- Cat whiskers pulled back: I don't like something.
I have rotated my whiskers back against my face to keep them safe and out of harms way in case of a fight.
Back to Pop Quiz!
Please Don't Cut My Whiskers
If you have ever thought about cutting or trimming your cat's whiskers, it is with sincere hope that you now understand all the reasons why this should not be done.
Though a cat will loose its whiskers through the natural shedding process, it does not happen all at once! Just as we shed hairs a little at a time, so it goes with our cats.
If a cat were to experience the loss of all it's whiskers at once, it could take up to three months for the entire set to regrow.Back to Pop Quiz!
Cats, Whiskers and Automobiles
Teenagers had them.
Grandmothers had them.
And it's possible that cats inspired them.
So, what auto accessory from the 1940's and 1950's was most likely inspired by cat whiskers?
Curb Feelers!...Don't know what those are?
Well, according to Wikipedia:
"Curb feelers or curb finders are springs or wires installed on a vehicle which act as "whiskers" to warn drivers that they are too close to the curb or other obstruction."
So...the next time you find yourself bumbling in the dark or running into street curbs, just think...life would be much easier if only you had your own set of whiskers!
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