Cat whiskers have nerves that help them to navigate through their surroundings and avoid stumbling into things. There are up to 200 nerves per single whisker. The nerves in the whiskers help the felines to detect vibrations emanating from their prey or alert them of a predator’s presence.
This article explains the function of the nerves in the whiskers and how they work. Keep reading for more.
The Anatomy of Cat Whiskers
The hairs themselves are not tactile. That means that they do not have any sensation in them.
The base of each hair follicle has loads of blood vessels, nerve endings, and sensory neurons that transmit the information to the cat’s brain. The nervous system is very sensitive because it features the sensory nerves that transmit information to the cat’s brain.
A cat is born with its whiskers already in place. That is because itswhiskers are an essential body part for a feline.
Whiskers are made of a protein known as keratin. Keratin is the protein that makes up your cat’s claws, meaning the whiskers are tough which is why they may feel prickly.
You will notice that your cat’s whiskers are typically thicker and longer than the other fur on a feline’s body. They fan out sideways and correspond to the width of your cat’s body.
Whiskers are found on the side of your cat’s upper lip, nose, jawline, over the top of the kitty’s eyes, and on the back of its front legs.
Functions of Cat Whisker Nerves
1. They help Your Cat Navigate
Whiskers act like a radar. Yes, cats have a great sense of hearing and smell, but unfortunately, felines do not have very good vision.
Cats can see things that are far off with little to no difficulty. But they cannot see things closer to them very well. That is when they need to use their whiskers to navigate closer surroundings.
Your cat needs its whiskers to feel out any dangers or obstacles when it cannot see such things in close proximity.
2. Whiskers Help Your Cat Balance
The whiskers offer your kitty balance. Think of them as a pole for balance, similar to what you would use if you were walking a tight rope.
That is one of the reasons why cats are comfortable climbing really high, and they love playing at heights. They also have exceptional balance.
A cat’s whiskers have proprioceptors which are special sensory organs found on their ends. The proprioceptors transmit signals to your cat’s brain that help your feline position its body and limbs safely and ready to react to any situation.
As a result, they help your cat stay balanced and aware of everything its body is doing. That is why cats tend to land on their feet and have exceptional balance.
3. They Communicate Emotions
Whiskers help your cat communicate their emotions. For example, when a kitty is content, satisfied, and at peace, its whiskers will be still and lying relaxed on the sides of its face.
But if your cat is excited or feeling aggressive, it will show its emotional state by its whisker movement. Any stimulus that stimulates the nervous system causes the nerves to send signals to your cat’s brain making the whiskers respond.
For example, when your cat is feeling threatened, its brain gets signals to prepare for an aggressive response. Your kitty flares out its whiskers and points them towards the object of its aggression.
In cases where your feline friend is scared, it pulls back its whiskers, laying them flat against its skin to make itself less conspicuous.
There are five main whisker movements to look out for:
Neutral: This is when their whiskers lie to the side in a relaxed manner. Your cat is happy when its whiskers are like that.
Perked: Perked whiskers mean your cat’s interest is engaged, and it is concentrating on whatever has its focus. Their whiskers fan out and are pulled forward, with their mouth is closed. This is a typical movement during hunting, and it communicates that your kitty has something in its sights.
Pulled back: Anxious and stressed cats tend to pull their whisker back. The more fearful your cat, the more it will move its whiskers back as its ears also move to the side. In this case, their ears and whiskers move in tandem to communicate fear.
Flattened: Cats taking an aggressive stance will flatten their whiskers against their face as they prepare to attack. Their ears point forward even as the whiskers lie flat, and you will also notice other typical aggressive body changes. For example, in addition to the flattened whiskers, the tail may be curved, and the hairs on the cat’s back arestanding.
Its eyes will also have dilated pupils, and your cat may have a direct, unwavering confrontational stare.
Forward-facing: If your cat’s whiskers face forward, it may be because it is in pain and trying really hard to conceal its pain. The tension in its face will be because of the pain caused by the whiskers that appear to be forward-facing.
Forward-facing whiskers may also be an indicator that your cat is feeling aggressive.
Types of Cat Whiskers
There are four types of cat whiskers: mandibular, carpal, superciliary, and mystacial. Most cat parents are familiar with the mystacial whiskers because they are more visible on a cat’s face..
a) Mystacial whiskers:
These are the whiskers you find on the side of your cat’s muzzle, and they are neatly arranged in rows. They point outwards from the side of the face, and they are noticeable at first glance at your cat. There are four rows of whiskers on each side of the face and a total of 24 mystacial whiskers.
Some cats have more than 24 whiskers, but the general rule of thumb is that the number of whiskers must be even.
The mystacial whiskers feel the space around the head of the cat. The longer whiskers help your cat determine the distance of objects from its face.
b) Mandibular whiskers:
These whiskers are located in the chin area of a cat’s face. They help the cat move about in the dark because they act as feelers.
You may notice that your cat sometimes moves with its face to the ground. The mandibular whiskers help it detect any movement on the ground, alerting it to any low-lying dangers.
c) Superciliary whiskers:
These are located on the top of your cat’s eyes. They appear like small tufts on the top of a cat’s eyes.
Superciliary whiskers detect any movement near the eye area of your cat so that it can blink and get out of harm’s way. That means their principal function is to protect the cat’s eye from injury when hunting or playing.
d) Carpal whiskers:
Carpal whiskers are locatedon the lack of a cat’s front legs. They are not conspicuous because they are hidden by the fur.
They are useful during hunting as they let your cat know whether the prey is still alive or dead.
Once a cat has its prey in its claws, it uses carpal whiskers to detect movement in the prey. If its catch is still alive, your cat will proceed to kill it.
They also help your cat determine the position of the prey since cats have poor up-close vision.
Essential Things You Should Know About a Cat’s Whisker Nerves
i) They must never be cut
Cutting or pulling out a cat’s whiskers interferes with its balance, and you can damage the nerves in the muzzle when you do this.
Remember, your cat’s whiskers are connected deeply to the nervous and muscular system. Due to that pulling at them or cutting them too close can hurt the cat.
ii) Cats experience whisker stress
If your cat uses a very narrow drinking or eating bowl that comes into constant contact with its whiskers, it will experience whisker stress.
As earlier mentioned, a cat’s whiskers come with proprioceptors that are sensitive to touch.
Constantly touching the whiskers overloads its nervous system, stressing your feline friend.
That explains why cats with small bowls to eat or drink from may tend to knock the bowl over, dumping the food or water on the ground before eating. Alternatively, your cat may dip its paws in the bowl and lick the water or food off its paws.
iii) The size of the whiskers relates to the size of the cat
You may notice that the whiskers on a Maine Coon cat are much longer than those on a Sphinx cat. The Maine Coon breed can grow to become quite large in girth, and as it widens, its whiskers lengthen too.
That is because your cat needs to use its whiskers to determine if it can fit into certain spaces. If the whiskers do not fit, the cat itself won’t.
This is one of the reasons why you should never trim the whiskers on your cat.
Smaller cats may have short and curly whiskers, while large cats have long and straight whiskers.
Currently, the cat holding the world record for the longest cat whiskers is a Maine Coon by the name of “Missi”, aka Fullmoon’s Miss American Pie from Finland. According to the Guinness World Records, this cat had whiskers measuring seven and a half inches in 2005.
iv) Whiskers can move independently or together
Each mystacial whisker is attached to a muscle that enables it to move independently from all the others. But the whiskers can also move together when your cat decides to move the large muscles surrounding them.
Your cat has full control over the movement of its whisker, which is why you may see some moving forward and backward when it yawns and or hunts.
v) Cats shed whiskers
While cutting and pulling is completely out of the question, your act may naturally shed its whiskers. However, when it does, the whiskers grow back on their own.
But be on the lookout for sudden shedding of multiple whiskers at the same time. It may be because of an infection, allergy, or trauma.
In some cases, cat acne could be the cause. Because cat acne occurs around the chin and mouth of a cat, it easily interferes with the mystacial and mandibular whiskers, causing them to drop off.
Writer: Mercy Nandika Amatieku