Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?

Yes, whiskers make your kitty even cuter. But they also serve a very important role.

What are cat whiskers made of?

The official name for cat whiskers is vibrissae. The word for these longer, stiffer hairs comes from the Latin term “vibrio,” which means to vibrate. In addition to on their muzzles, cats can sport whiskers above their eyebrows, coming out of their ears, and even on their forelegs.

Unlike facial hair in humans, though, cat whiskers play an important role in how they perceive the world around them. The tip of the whisker has a sensory organ known as a proprioceptor. Through the hair follicles, whiskers are also connected to cats’ nervous and muscular systems, making felines extremely sensitive to changes in their environment.

Why do cats have whiskers?

“The main reason that cats have whiskers is that they use them to feel and sense what is around them,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, a small animal and exotic veterinarian and veterinary consultant for doglab.com. “Whiskers are similar to our fingers in that they use their whiskers to sense when something is close to them and to hunt out their prey.” Curious about other animals? Here’s why dogs have whiskers.

Adds Dr. Angie Krause, DVM, CVA, a holistic veterinarian and animal acupuncturist based in Boulder, Colorado: “Whiskers help cats locate themselves and other things in space.”

How do cats use their whiskers?

Cats like small spaces, and they sometimes use their whiskers to see if they will fit into them, Dr. Ochoa says.

Their whiskers are also sensitive enough to detect changes in the air patterns around them, which helps them steer clear of predators. And whiskers also help cats navigate their surroundings in the dark.

Should you trim a cat’s whiskers?

Unlike a cat’s toenails, you should never trim a cat’s whiskers.

“We’re not 100 percent sure how cats experience their whiskers,” Dr. Krause says. “I don’t think they’re painful when we cut them off, but especially if your kitty can’t see or hear as well, it’s an important part of how they’re experiencing their environment.” Tune in to the signs your cat is secretly mad at you.

In fact, cats’ whiskers can be so attuned to sensory stimulation that they can even affect how they eat. “We have a term called whisker fatigue,” Dr. Krause says. “Some cats are extremely sensitive about their whiskers touching the side of the bowl as they’re eating.”

Because of that, some veterinarians recommend a really wide bowl or feeding on a plate for some cats, she says. Now that you know why cats have whiskers, learn about some other things you never knew about cats.

Jen McCaffery
Jen McCaffery is an associate editor for Reader’s Digest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Prevention, Rhode Island Monthly, and other publications and websites. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s growing veggies or trying to figure out the way home from assorted trails.