Scientific study finds no signs of cat whisker stress or fatigue

Is domestic cat stress/whisker fatigue a genuine problem?

Cat whisker stress is unsupported by science and is based on subjective anecdotal observation
Cat whisker stress is unsupported by science and is based on subjective anecdotal observation. Image: MikeB
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

We hear quite a last about whisker fatigue in domestic cats. It refers to the whiskers touching the sides of a food bowl as the cat eats which can make it less pleasant to eat which in turn may lead to eating less or more messily. That’s the theory and you see it repeated on websites all over the Internet.

But is it correct? Is it a false presumption?

A study, online, dated June 15, 2020 and title Evaluation of whiskers stressing cats, concluded with the following after their testing in which 40 indoor cats were enrolled:

No evidence was found that eating from the whisker-friendly dish increased the amount of time spent eating (P = 0.8), decreased the amount of food dropped (P = 0.9) or increased the amount of food eaten (P = 0.7). The estimated probability for the cats to prefer the whisker-friendly dish was 0.74 with a 95% confidence interval.

And the conclusion of the study is as follows:

Cats fed from a whisker-friendly dish did not spend more time eating, drop less food or eat more food in a 5-min period. Some cats appeared to prefer the new whisker-friendly dish over their normal food dish. Overall, food dish-associated whisker stress did not affect the eating habits of the study cats.

As you can see the results are very clear-cut. There was no change in eating methods and habits when the cats ate out of a conventional bowl compared to a bowl that was designed to reduce whisker fatigue or stress (wider and flatter).

I would take this to mean that whisker fatigue as we describe it doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that some or all of these cats might have felt the sides of the bowl through their whiskers but it didn’t affect their eating which means it did not concern then sufficiently to interrupt eating.

The idea of whisker fatigue came about because whiskers are very sensitive with a lot of nerve endings at the base of each whisker. They are so sensitive that it is said that they can detect air currents in the dark to guide the cat around objects.

Further research beyond the study mentioned also indicates that there is no scientific evidence to support the existence of “cat whisker fatigue”. It’s probably based upon anecdotal observation from cat owners which will be subjective.

I’m not saying that subjective, anecdotal evidence is bad. It can be very good. However, I think we need to inject some hard science into the discussion which is what I’m doing here.

The bottom line is that there is no evidence that conventional bowls which are non-friendly towards whiskers cause physical discomfort or stress for the cat.

Link to the study mentioned: https://doi.org/10.1177/1098612X20930190

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