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Structure and Function of the Whiskers in Cats

By: Virginia Wells

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What Are Whiskers?

Whiskers are coarse, long, widely spaced sensory hairs located around the muzzle of cats. Whiskers are specialized hairs called vibrissae, that are very sensitive to touch.

Where Are Whiskers Located?

Cats have about 24 moveable whiskers, twelve on either side of the nose, arranged in four rows in a pattern as individual as our fingerprints. Small groups of whiskers are situated on other parts of the body as well: high on the outer edges of the cheeks, above the eyes and on the back of the front legs.

What Is the General Structure of the Whiskers?

Whiskers are more than twice as thick as ordinary hairs, and their roots are set three times deeper. They are connected to muscle, which allows them to be moved backwards and forwards, and the bottom two rows can move independently of the top two. Whiskers have an endothelium-lined blood sinus between the inner and outer layers of the dermal portion of the follicle with a rich nerve supply. This makes each whisker an intricate receptor that allows your cat to sense even the smallest changes in the environment, such as air currents, changes in air pressure, temperature or wind direction.

What Are the Functions of the Whiskers?

Whiskers serve as delicate sense organs of touch and are believed to be as sensitive as our fingertips. They are sensitive to vibrations in air currents. As the air moves, the whiskers vibrate, and cats use messages in these vibrations to sense the presence, size and shape of nearby objects without seeing or touching them. Whiskers help protect the eyes; any touch to the whiskers causes the eyelids to blink.

Whiskers tend to be the same width as a cat's body and are used as locators; by judging how wide a place is before entering, they help to determine the cat's ability to fit through small spaces. Length is genetically determined, so cats that become fatter lose this function.

Hunting cats can move their whiskers back and forth to collect information about their prey. They can determine if the prey is still alive so they can apply an accurate killing bite or whether it is safe to put the captured animal down.

What Are the Common Diseases of the Whiskers?

  • Pyoderma of the hair follicle
  • Demodectic mange
  • Trauma
  • Burns
  • Hair follicle dysplasia
  • Malicious cutting of the whiskers

    What Types of Diagnostic Tests Are Used to Evaluate the Whiskers?

    Since diseases that affect whiskers also affect the skin and hair coat, most dermatologic tests can be used to evaluate problems with the whiskers.

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