Second Chance: Whiskers 101

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Dear Pet Column,

What do cats use whiskers for? I always imagined them to be like little antennae communicating with alien life forms…


Wondering about Whiskers

Dear Wondering,

Yours is a robust question. There are so many amazing things to say about the wonders of whiskers, but I will share my top 10 coolest facts:

Whiskers aren’t randomly ordered but, on average, cats have 3 horizontal rows of 4 whiskers on each side of their face (24 total). Cats with slightly less or more are considered to have extra special kitty powers. How many does your cat have?

Whiskers are direct lines of communication with the world around us. Each root of a whisker connects to 200 or more nerve endings that transmit information directly to our brain. Basically we are way cooler than an octopus.

The information transmitted from whisker to brain helps us to navigate our environment. Through whisker power we detect changes in air current and avoid obstacles in our path. (Similar to if we are flying…which may be part of our evolutionary destiny, flying cats – awesome!)

Whiskers also help us to hunt. In fact even a blindfolded cat can still successfully capture prey with the help of whisker wonder. We also use our whiskers to curl around prey to help determine if the subject is still alive and potentially dangerous. So they are life detectors!

Whisker length is typically proportional to our bodies to help determine what openings we can safely fit through. So those photos of cats with their heads stuck in jars are cats who are clearly not properly using their antennae. Whiskers do not grow to keep pace with a cat’s appetite so fat cats tend to get stuck in things more often simply by misjudging their own body size.

Extra cool cat’s whiskers can also grow on the backs of front paws to help navigate across uneven ground and help determine the size of captured prey. Whiskers also grow over our eyes and on our chins. These are not as necessary for survival but, being responsive to touch, improves the whole cuddling experience that feed our souls.

Fun whisker factoid: because whiskers are so important to us they develop on the feline fetus before hair does (and despite being blind and deaf at birth a newborn’s whiskers are fully operational). Because of all the super powers our antennae provide it is important to not mess with them. Trimming them is very disorienting to us, particularly in the dark. You may worship our whiskers, but don’t alter them.

Sadly, there is no “evidence” that purr machines like me use our whiskers to communicate with alien life forms, however, we do use them for communication. For example, when I have my whiskers out to the side you can tell I am calm and friendly. Pointing my whiskers upward shows I am curious or excited; pointing them backward displays defensiveness or anger (which you will witness if you attempt to mess with our antennae).

My name is Zeke. I am 6-month young homeless kitty. With the help of my whiskers I have learned to trust humans and love cuddles! I tolerate other cats fine, but am more of a people-kitty. I do believe that my whiskers occasionally register signals from other galaxies, but I would prefer to find a home on this planet for now…

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