The answer to the question depends upon how badly the whiskers (vibrissae) are cut. Or if, for example, they are cut on one side and not the other. And we should be clear that there are no scientific studies on this. Also, there’s no need to cut whiskers unless by a vet for medical reasons. Whiskers are important to cats. If they are cut off there will be consequences.
But cats adapt well and let’s remind ourselves that hairless cats such as the Sphynx have very poor or no whiskers (see cat above) and nobody is concerned about this. We have no stories of Sphynx cats falling over and wandering into walls because they lack whiskers. As they are looked after and indoor cats they don’t need whiskers for effective nocturnal hunting. However, I think the Sphynx cat is a good example of how cats can live well without whiskers or with poor quality whiskers. Hairless cats don’t seem disorentated by either the loss of whiskers or their fur. I suppose this is because they were born with these deficiencies. But it clearly indicates that domestic cats adapt. This cat breed’s loss of their whiskers is another reason why they should not be bred. I have never heard that argument but it is a powerful one.
Purpose of whiskers
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence about what happens when you cut off whiskers. I am not sure whether to believe them. We have to look at their purpose and decide what might happen when they are removed. They are used as feelers which are sensitive to touch. They can detect air currents. This helps the cat to see at night because their whiskers detect faint air currents moving around solid objects. Whiskers also help a cat hunt at night. A cat can perform a clean kill because their whiskers act as highly sensitive guidance systems. They check the body outline of the victim and direct the cat’s bite to the nape of the neck. The tips of the whiskers read the shape of the prey’s body, hugging the prey animal and “reading” its shape. Dr Desmond Morris described it brilliantly when he said that it is like a blind man reading Braille.
Hunting – survival
As the cat is mainly a nocturnal hunter their whiskers are crucial to their survival. For cats dependent on hunting for survival the loss of whiskers would make survival more difficult. Tracking and killing prey would be relatively clumsy. But they’d adapt and modify their behavior and probably survive nonetheless subject to their age and circumstances. However, as domestic cats are meant to be looked after they are not dependent on hunting for survival.
Bumping into things?
Anecdotally, I have read that if whiskers are cut off from one side of the face cats tend to wander into objects on that side until they make adjustments. This would imply that cats can adjust to the loss of their whiskers. It is not true that cats cannot walk without whiskers. Whiskers are not balancing organs. They are feelers sensitive to touch as mentioned.
One doctor said that a cat would feel disorientated and that it would harder for them to assess where their surroundings are if their whiskers werr cut off. I would agree with that. Whiskers are an important part of their anatomy upon which they rely. But I stress, they’d adjust. We know that domestic cats are very good at adjusting and adapting when they lose bits of their anatomy like a leg or even two legs. Cats also adapt when they are blind and get around as if they have renewed eyesight by using their other senses which ironically includes whiskers.
A cat would not feel physical pain if their whiskers where cut off. Whiskers are made of keratin, a dead material. Our nails are made of keratin. The spines on a cat’s tongue are made of keratin. The sensitive nerves are at the base of the whiskers. There would be distress however and therefore emotional pain.
In practical terms, I would suggest that what would happen if a cat’s whiskers were cut is that they would initially feel somewhat disorientated, a little disturbed and hunt less effectively. But they would adapt and find a way through the problem until their whiskers grew back after a couple of months.
Many years ago my late sister cut off our cat’s whiskers. I don’t recall any substantial change in our cat’s behavior. She never explained why she did it. She was a young girl at the time.
Some more on whiskers