This picture of a cobby cat, probably and Exotic Shorthair, with her whisker pads raised shows us how her whiskers are being used to try and feel the object that is in front of her but out of view. It is as if she was thrusting a hand at the object to touch it and learn about it. You can also see her left foreleg about to be raised to grab the object. You probably know that whiskers are incredibly sensitive. They are embedded in the whisker pads of the cat’s upper lip to a depth three times that of the other hairs. They are supplied with a mass of nerve-endings which send information about the object being ‘felt’ to the brain for analysis.
A lot of people think that the sole task of whiskers is to measure an opening to allow the cat to judge whether they can pass through it or not. Their role is far more complicated. They can detect air currents around objects. This allows a cat to navigate in near pitch-darkness. The whiskers detect the eddies of hair surrounding objects. They are that sensitive.
And when hunting, you see whiskers thrust forward as you see in the photograph, surrounding the prey animal caught in the cat’s claws. The whiskers feel for the nape of the neck to allow the cat’s canine teeth to be inserted precisely between the vertebrae. In this instance they are acting as a guidance system to kill prey efficiently. You will see the whiskers wrapped around the prey as they transmit information in real time via that dense nervous system to the brain. As the domestic cat is primarily a nocturnal hunter, their whiskers play an important role.
On average the cat has 24 whiskers, 12 on each side of the nose arranged in four horizontal rows. As you can see, they can move forwards when the cat is inquisitive or testing something. They also moved backwards when they are defensive or ensuring that the whiskers don’t touch something. For example, when I flea comb my cat’s cheek down to his shoulder, he pulls whiskers back against his face.
The top two rows can be moved independently of the bottom to. The strongest whiskers are in rows two and three. Their scientific name is vibrassae. You will see whiskers in other parts of the body too, such as above the eyes, on the cheeks and on the chin and, surprisingly, on the backs of forelegs. They are all sensitive detectors of movement.
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