Whiskers might be one of the cutest components of a cat’s body, but they are also a vital part of its anatomy. From being a built-in tape measure, to helping with night vision, to sensing vibrations and the environment around them, these small tufts of hair have some impressive sensory superpowers.
If you’re wondering why your cat has whiskers, read on!
Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
First and foremost, whiskers are a cat’s most important sensory tool. The inside of a whisker is full of nerve endings, and the tip of the whisker features a sensory organ called a proprioceptor. The hair follicle is therefore designed to be incredibly sensitive to vibrations and cats use them to help them understand what’s going on around them.
It is also worth mentioning that each whisker is much more embedded into the body than any normal hair follicle. This is because the whisker is connected to a cat’s muscular and nervous system so messages can be sent straight from the follicle to the brain!
Cats have evolved over millions of years to develop these highly adaptive sensors. See below for a list of how these small tufts of hair help a cat in everyday life.
1. Cat’s Whiskers Are All Over
You might think that a cat’s whiskers are just on their face? The small bits of hair that tickle your own face in the middle of the night? Well, a cat also has whiskers on its eyes, ears, jaw and forelegs!
Whiskers are placed all over their body to give a cat a sense of its surroundings at all times. The whiskers on their front legs are particularly important as they help to keep track of a prey’s movements during a hunt.
2. A Tape Measure & A Parking Sensor
As well as having a strong sense of smell, cats can also judge distances and tight spaces with the whiskers on their face. You will often see a cat test a space they are about to move into by thrusting their face into it first. This allows them to calculate the distance within the space itself and judge whether they can get through. For this reason alone, it’s vital that a cat’s whiskers are left alone and are never cut. They are a fundamental tool for their sense of safety and overall balance.
3. Activate Night Vision
Cats are most active at night. Anyone who has been awoken at 3 AM in the night will know what we’re talking about. As well as having exceptional vision in the dark, a cat’s whiskers also help them to navigate their surroundings by picking up air currents that are flowing around a room. This allows them to sense where there is open space, and where any objects are located that will block an air current from flowing. Cool, right? This sensory combination allows cats to feel their way around the dark much better than us humans.
4. Spectacles For Cats
It might be surprising to hear that a cat’s close-up vision is poor. Any object within 30 – 60cm is difficult for a cat to see due to its long-sighted vision. This is another time when whiskers come in handy and help a cat to understand what’s immediately in front of them. The sensitivity of their whisker organ will allow a cat to work out how close an object is, what size the object is, and even the texture of that object. This is all achieved through touch. Neat, right?
5. Whisker Symmetry Is Important
Cats have an even number of whiskers on their face with 24 in total. Each side has 12 whiskers in a completely symmetrical layout, which allows them to accurately measure the environment around them.
6. They Act As A Force Field Of Protection
Whiskers are placed across a cat’s body in important and sensitive places to protect them from any possible danger. The whiskers around a cat’s eyes are the most sensitive and will detect the slightest movement or touch. This is a useful field of protection for everyday life, shielding the eyes from any dust, hair or loose/hanging objects that can be littered outside. Think branches, grass or flies!
7. They Can Change Colour
Many of us can start to sport a greying head of hair as we age, and cats can too! However, this process doesn’t always leave a cat with whiter whiskers than before. Sometimes, light whiskers can change to dark grey or even black! If anyone knows the science behind this, some of us in the Catipilla team would love to hear about it…