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Whiskers: Your Cat’s Finger on the World

By: Virginia Wells

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It's said that if a cat's whiskers touch a mouse in the dark, the cat reacts with the speed and precision of a mousetrap. Your cat's senses evolved from those of the wild cat's, a long line of hunters and predators, and are designed for the purpose of stalking, hunting and killing.

Whiskers, or vibrissae, serve as delicate sense organs of touch and are the equivalent to our fingertips. These whiskers 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.

Cats have about 24 moveable whiskers, twelve on either side of his nose, arranged in four rows in a pattern as individual as our fingerprints. The strongest and thickest are in the middle rows. 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 (carpal vibrissae or "paw whiskers"). Carpal vibrissae are common in carnivores that grasp their prey with their forelegs.

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 are richly supplied with nerve endings, making each 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.

It's a misconception that cats can see in the dark. Their night vision is better than ours, but it is the whiskers that allow him to get around in the dark. Interestingly, cats that are born blind grow longer and thicker whiskers than sighted cats and they use them to a greater extent. In fact, kittens in the womb grow their whiskers before any other hair, and at birth they are fully functional, while the ears and eyes are not.

The whiskers are the same width as your cat's body and are used as locators by judging how wide a place is before entering, consequently helping him to determine whether he can fit through small spaces. The length of the whiskers are genetically predetermined, so if your cat becomes fatter, he will lose this function.

Hunting cats can move their whiskers back and forth to collect information about the prey. For example, whiskers can reach forward to give information about the captive creature in their mouths. Your cat can determine if the prey is still alive so that he can apply an accurate killing bite. He also knows whether or not he can put the captured animal down. A cat whose whiskers have been damaged may bite the wrong part of the mouse he's attacking.

Whiskers help protect your cat's eyes. Any touch to the whiskers stimulates an eye blink. Whiskers are so sensitive that your cat does not like to have them touched. Because they are so sensitive, whiskers can also be a bother. For example, they sometimes touch the sides of the eating dish if it is not wide enough, and your cat may stop eating rather than experience these irritating sensations.

Take time to notice your cat's whiskers. Their position are an indication of your cat's mood. When your cat is feeling affection his whiskers will point forward and down, but when he feels aggressive, they will be forward and up. When angry or threatened, they will flatten back against the cheeks, while his stalking posture will keep them forward and tense.

Your cat's whiskers are not just a part of his good looks; they fulfill functions of vital importance by supplying sensory information about his environment and his prey and are essential to his survival. If you pay attention, you will gain a deeper respect for the amazing sensitive world of your cat's whiskers.

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