6 Must Know Facts About a Cat’s Whiskers

How much do you know about your cat's whiskers? There is a surprising amount of detail behind these neat whisps of magic.

Mar 4, 2024By Abigail Gould
must know facts about cats whiskers

Picture this: your cat is stalking something in the garden. You watch her, fascinated. Every movement is precise. Yet, she completes every single action without a thought. As she focuses on her target (a doomed leaf) there are countless natural processes within her make-up firing simultaneously, equipping her to defy the laws of gravity.

Cats instinctively do amazing things. But not without their whiskers.

So, what do they actually do? What do cats need their whiskers for? Here are the intriguing facts.

6. Cat Anatomy

close up of cat whiskers

Whiskers are still made up of keratin. And they still grow out of follicles. However, they are far more than simple strands of hair. Unlike other types of hair, whiskers are tactile organs. In other words, they receive essential sensory input which is transmitted to the brain and nervous system. Scientists use the term vibrissae to describe whiskers because not even the slightest vibrations go unfelt.

Whiskers also have far deeper roots than other types of body fur. Plus, there are hundreds of sensory cells, blood vessels, and muscles packed into their follicles. This high concentration of nerve endings makes whiskers extremely sensitive.

5. Exploring and Navigating

cat exploring in the dark

Did you know that cats are far-sighted to the extent that they cannot focus on anything that’s closer than thirty centimeters?

This is where whiskers really come into play. Passing air currents stimulate nerve receptors to pick up movement even if it's hidden from sight. And that's one of the reasons cats do so well in the dark - because they don’t rely solely on their eyesight to ‘see’ their environment.

In fact, whiskers are so sensitive that cats can tell the distance, direction, and placement of objects around them. This even includes movement and details of the elements around them.

Whiskers can interpret all this information just because of the way air flows in and around things.

This special sensory ability isn’t only necessary for outdoor or semi-wild cats. All cats are active at night and need their whiskers to get around, find a quick snack, use the litter tray, and locate the center of your sleeping belly!

4 - Defence and Hunting

tiny kitten swatting plant

Since cats are inclined to explore, whiskers serve as very effective “armor”. Thus, when a whisker is triggered by something tiny, a cat will instantly react with a shake of the head, a quick blink, or backing away. This protects their eyes and faces from injuries that could result from the smallest of particles.

Another form of defense relates to spatial awareness. Whiskers help a cat ‘measure’ small spaces. This not only helps your cat figure out if he or she can fit through narrow spots but also helps them move silently through tight places without disturbing anything. Such equipment is super necessary to their escape-from-danger kit!

When it comes to hunting, playing, and cats-being-cats, they use their whiskers super adeptly. However, much of what they do is so impossibly quick we don’t get to see how it happens. The best way to understand how a cat’s whiskers help them is to watch them in action, and you can with this BBC Earth video.

Fun fact: Whiskers are proportionate to the body size of a cat. So, a Siamese will be shorter in whisker than say, a Norwegian Forest.

3. Balance

cat leaping over plant

Proprioception is the sense that stops you and me from falling out of bed when we sleep. It has the basic definition of your body’s position in space. Likewise, proprioception is the sense cats use to land on their feet.

As you can imagine, cats need their whiskers to cross narrow fence lines, perform majestic leaps and get themselves out of tricky situations safely.

In other words, cats cannot balance unless their tactile organs are complete. Without their whiskers to guide them, cats become agitated, confused, and even clumsy.

2. Communication

old man and cat

You’ve likely noticed that your cat has different facial expressions. For example, he or she tends to look a little extra cute when they are in an especially playful mood. This also happens to be when their eyebrow whiskers pick up.

Cats use combinations of body language cues to let you know what’s allowed and when they want to be left alone. A change of whisker, an ear-turn, plus a tail flick, add up to the signal that Fluffy’s had enough of you for now.

You will notice your cat moves his or her whiskers up or down, forward, or back depending on the situation. Cats move their whiskers with tiny muscles at the base of each follicle, allowing them to control their whiskers both individually, or all at once.

Whether a cat is feeling threatened, curious, or relaxed, whiskers communicate it all.

1. Whisker Care

upside down cat relaxed petted

We’ve already established that a cat’s whiskers are remarkably responsive for some very good reasons! However, sensitivity also means that they are prone to pain.

Whiskers can be overstimulated resulting in significant discomfort for your cat. It even has a medical name: whisker fatigue.

When you groom your cat, take special care around the whiskers, only smoothing them in the direction they grow in. Additionally, let your feline pal eat and drink from shallow food and water bowls designed for cats that won’t interfere with their tactile hairs.

Whiskers shouldn’t be trimmed, and, they should never (never ever) be pulled!

As you can see, a cat’s whiskers are invaluable in helping them make a quick escape when they need to. Or, when they are trying to make their way home in the dark after an evening excursion!

Yes, cats need their whiskers. And without them, a cat wouldn’t be able to well… cat.

Check out some of our other articles in this series for more great articles!

Abigail Gould
By Abigail Gould

Abigail’s experience with animals comes from growing up on a farm. She has been fortunate enough to look after cats, dogs, ducks, geese, chickens, and guinea pigs. Of all the pets she’s cared for, guinea pigs have been the most entertaining, dogs the most rewarding, and cats the most essential!