Cat Whiskers

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photo by fofurasfelinas

Whiskers are amazing

Cat whiskers (vibrissae) do more than you ever imagined. As humans we have a tendency to think that we are superior, yet many other animals have sensory devices that far exceed the ability of human senses.

The conventional belief is that cat whiskers allow a cat to measure the width of a space and guage whether it can be squeezed through. They may do that but they do far more.

They provide a form of sight to a cat by acting as air current detectors, which is particularly useful in the dark when eyes are less useful. This highlights the amazing sensitivity of the whiskers. As the cat approaches an object that he can’t see clearly or at all, he can sense the object is there by the way the air currents alter as he approaches it. Perhaps whiskers provide a sensory mechanism inbetween sight and touch and more along the lines of touch as they can “feel” air currents, which is air pressure impinging on the whisker.

The sensitivity comes from the nerves at the base of the whiskers. The whiskers are embedded as we know in the upper lip of the cat to a far greater depth (3 times deeper) than the other hairs. At the base of the hair their are a mass of nerve endings, which transmit to the brain any minute impact on the end of the whisker be it actual contact with an object or an air current. The signal is transmitted via the fifth cranial nerve to a part of the cat’s brain that is similar the a human’s visual cortex. The part of the human brain that process light signals from the eyes.

Cat whiskers are kept rigid by a sac of blood surrounding the base of the whisker. When the heart beats faster the sac fills with more blood forcing the whiskers closer to nerve receptors. This may also control the forward pointing movement of the whiskers when the cat is in treating mode (see below).

On average their are 12 on each side of the face. They are enlarged and stiffened hairs. They can also be found on other areas of the cat:

  • cheeks
  • over the eyes
  • chin
  • back of front legs

Cat whiskers are extremely useful for hunting, particularly at night. Their amazing sensitivity directs the cat by “feeling” the prey and the prey’s movement, to provide information for the cat to strike at the exactly correct area (the nape of the neck) of the prey. The area between the upper vertebrae, where the cat’s teeth can be inserted to break the back of the prey and kill it.

For a cat with damaged whiskers this is not possible and a clean kill can only take place during the day when eyesight alone can be relied upon. A cat with intact whiskers can kill equally effectively at night as in daylight.

I have noticed that when I play with my cat and she becomes attentive at what I am doing close by, her whiskers jump instantly to a forward position pointing towards the tease in front of her. This puts them in a postion to test what is front of her and be more threatening if required.

See a picture of a cat with cut whiskers.

Why are cat whiskers white?

Whatever the color the cat’s fur the whiskers are nearly always white. Although the whiskers above the eyes, which are shorter and thinner are usually the same color as the fur.

Whiskers are formed from dead skin cells. The “layer” where the formation of the whisker starts at the base is colored and is formed of skin cells.  This gets pushed upwards by another ring and so on. The first ring is colored but as it is pushed upwards the pressure by the surrounding skin kills the whisker cells, which lose their pigmentation. This is the theory in any case.Photo: this is by probably the best amateur cat photographer anywhere. This photograph is published here under a creative coommons license. I have used this photographers photographs throughout this website. I’d like to thank her for making her photographs available.


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