Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?

Learn the many functions of a dog's whiskers, from spatial awareness to "radar detection," plus the surprising reason you should never cut these hairs.

May 21, 2024By Donna Hobson
why do dogs have whiskers

You've probably noticed the long, loose whiskers hanging from your dog's face, but have you ever wondered what they're for exactly? They form an important part of a dog's sensory experience and are one of the primary ways canines experience touch.

From night vision to a defence mechanism, discover how dogs use these sensory hairs to understand the world around them.

What Are Whiskers?

dog whiskers
Credit: Image by Jeremy Kyejo on Pixabay

Whiskers - also known as vibrissae - are coarse, long hairs that appear around a dog's jaw, muzzles, and eyes. These whiskers are embedded three times deeper than regular hairs and packed with nerves that help a dog perceive the world around them by sending messages to the brain.

Whiskers are different from other hairs on a dog's body as they are more deeply embedded and far more sensitive to touch. As humans, we associate touch with the fingers, but for dogs, whiskers are one of the primary ways they experience touch. Forty percent of the touch processing area of the brain is assigned to the whiskers!

Dogs develop their whiskers at a very young age (they are among the first hairs a puppy develops), so they grow up relying on these special hairs to help them navigate the world around them. Not only do they help your dog understand its environment, but they also support your dog's other senses and help keep them safe in the world.

Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?

dog whiskers outside
Credit: Image by Claire Diaz on Pixabay

Dogs have whiskers to assist them in understanding the world; as they explore, these vibrissae send messages to the brain, helping a dog to "see" the world more clearly. Bearing in mind that sight is not a dog's strongest sense, these whiskers are vital to help your dog find its way in the world.

Dogs are far-sighted, so the vibrissae help them locate small objects or anything close to them. Any air movement in the environment around them can trigger a response from the whiskers and send a message to the brain.

Although whiskers are sometimes called "tactile hairs," they don't feel anything; instead, they transmit information to sensory cells for processing, detecting slight changes in air current to determine the makeup of objects around them.

Whiskers Are Sensors

dog whiskers sense eating
Credit: Image by Nicolas Demetriades on Pixabay

Whiskers help your dog determine the shape, size, and speed of the objects around them; they also aid in night vision and allow a dog to work out whether or not it can fit through a small space.

In addition, these handy sensors can prevent injury to your dog's eyes. Say there's a twig poking out of a bush as you walk along; in that case, the dog's whiskers will sense it and cause the dog to blink, preventing the twig from poking them in the eye.

Whiskers act like radar detectors by picking up faint vibrations and changes in the air current caused by nearby objects. In the wild, this helps dogs detect potential attackers or alert them to the presence of prey. In a domestic environment, it allows them to better navigate their way around the home.

Whiskers Are Great Hunting Tools

dog whiskers eating grass
Credit: Image by Mary Pahlke on Pixabay

Whiskers are great tools for keeping your dog safe, but they serve many other purposes, too, such as helping your canine hunt successfully. When an object around them moves, it bounces off an air current which is picked up by the dog's whiskers. This tells your dog where the object is, as well as its size and speed.

The sensory perception of a dog's whiskers and their incredible sense of smell are the primary reasons dogs make such great hunters.

Scientists have suggested that whiskers could have played an essential part in canine history, allowing dogs to locate their food - much like rats, seals, and other animals still do today - though there is a lack of studies or evidence to prove this theory either way.

Whiskers Communicate Emotions

dog whiskers emotions pug
Credit: Image by Screamenteagle on Pixabay

Whiskers can also project a dog's emotions, and they sometimes use these sensory hairs to communicate how they are feeling. When a dog feels happy or curious, they will often elevate the whiskers that sit above the eyes, giving them a wide-eyed appearance, which is appealing to their owners.

If a dog feels threatened, it will often flare its whiskers and point them forwards. This signals that they're not happy to other dogs and may even form a part of their defence strategy.

Can I Cut My Dog's Whiskers?

dog whiskers nose sense
Credit: Image by mxart on Pixabay

No, you should not cut your dog's whiskers.

Tempting as it may be to trim the loose hair hanging around your dog's face, it's not worth it for the impact it will have on your canine. The good news is that cutting a dog's whiskers is unlikely to hurt them physically, but this doesn't mean that it won't affect them in other ways.

Imagine having one of your eyes removed; it would be seriously disorienting because it's one of the primary ways in which you see and understand the world - and it's no different for a dog. Taking away their whiskers can be a discombobulating experience that leaves them feeling a sense of disorientation and confusion.

Cutting your dog's whiskers can cause them to become less spatially aware and impede their judgment of nearby objects.

Cutting your dog's whiskers will hugely impact their ability to catch prey and seriously damage their confidence. When you consider how integral this sense is to a dog, you can start understanding its importance.

Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.