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In this lesson we’ll look at why dogs and cats have whiskers, what exactly these structures are, and the many purposes they serve for our furry friends.

What Are Whiskers?

Have you ever been in a dark room and had to feel your way around with your arms? Using your arms allows you to avoid bumping into things such as chairs and other obstacles, as well as feel along the walls to see where the edges of the room are.We use our sense of vision a lot more than we think about, but sometimes we have to supplement it when our vision just isn’t enough. Cats and dogs do this too, but instead of using their arms to feel around, they have special structures called vibrissae. You may have heard of these, because we more commonly call them whiskers.

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The name ‘vibrissae’ comes from the Latin ‘vibrio’, which means ‘vibrate’.

Whiskers are sensory structures that help cats and dogs navigate their world.
Dogs use their whiskers to find things that are right under their noses.

Dog whiskers

But whiskers also help with vision even when it’s not dark. Dogs are not able to focus on close-up objects, so whiskers can play a role in helping to find things on the ground that are right under their noses. Whiskers are also protective structures, because when they brush up against something, that is a trigger for the animal to blink and protect their eyes from possible injury. For cats, whiskers also aid in measuring distances. Have you ever seen a cat walking along a narrow ledge or leap gracefully from one surface to another? Whiskers play a role in these actions as well.

Whiskers help cats makes those graceful leaps from one surface to another.

cat jumping

Whiskers don’t just provide information for the owner of those whiskers, they also relay information to others. Whiskers can indicate if the animal is scared, excited, calm, and everything in between. Much like the tail and ears of a dog or cat, whiskers can also display emotion and feelings to other animals, sending signals and information to them.And this is why it’s really important that you don’t cut, trim, or modify your pet’s whiskers! Yes, they can grow back, but in the meantime you can cause your pet some serious distress. Imagine if someone trimmed off your fingers and toes, or put a blindfold and ear plugs on you.

These might be temporary modifications (assuming your fingers and toes grow back), but I’m guessing that during this time you’ll be pretty upset about not having all of your senses available.

Lesson Summary

Vibrissae, better known as whiskers, are sensory structures on cats and dogs. They are rooted much deeper in the body than regular hairs and are connected to muscles and nerves, sending sensory signals to the animal’s brain.

Whiskers help dogs and cats tell where their bodies are as well as how they can navigate through, under, over, and around spaces. A proprioceptor is the sensory organ at the tip of a whisker that helps them make these spatial decisions.Whiskers also relay information to other animals because they can indicate emotions and feelings such as being excited, scared, or calm. Because whiskers play such a critical role in both sensing and sending information, it’s important to leave them intact on your furry friend.

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