Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?

And why chubby cats have long ones 🧡

cat with arrows pointing to whiskers

Your cat’s cute little face wouldn’t be the same without his whiskers. But do they actually do anything, or are they just there to look adorable?

Cats’ whiskers are actually really important and have a ton of uses.

The Dodo spoke to Dr. Sarah Wooten, a veterinary journalist and veterinarian with Pumpkin Pet Insurance, to find out why cats have whiskers.

What are whiskers?

The scientific name for whiskers is vibrissae, and they’re actually a lot different from your cat’s regular fur.

“Whiskers are thicker and more rough than regular cat fur,” Dr. Wooten told The Dodo. “Whiskers are only found in a few places on the body: above the upper lip, above the eyes, next to the ears and on the chin and forelegs. They have much deeper roots, and whisker hair follicles have more nerves than a regular hair follicle.”

The extra nerves in whiskers mean that they’re more sensitive, which allows your cat to use them for lots of different things.

“Whiskers are not considered body hair,” Dr. Wooten said. “They are considered sensory organs that are as sensitive as the tips of our fingers.”

What do cat whiskers do?

Cats typically have about 12 whiskers on each side of their face, which may seem like a lot, but they use their whiskers for a variety of purposes, so it makes sense.

Here’s what cats use their whiskers for.

They can protect cats from predators

Cats’ whiskers can sense vibrations in the air, which lets them know when something’s approaching them.

“Whiskers sense changes in air movement, which can help alert cats to nearby predators,” Dr. Wooten said.

They help with navigation

The fact that cats’ whiskers sense vibrations means that they can also help your cat navigate his surroundings. Cats don’t see very well up close, so their whiskers help them determine what’s going on right in front of them.

“The whiskers come into contact with something and send sensory data to the nerves, which help cats interpret their world,” Dr. Wooten said.

So when anything touches your cat’s whiskers or makes them vibrate, it sends that information to his brain to let him know that something’s there.

They help cats communicate

Your cat’s whiskers can help tell you how he’s feeling. The same way that you change your facial expressions based on how you’re feeling, cats will move their whiskers around to show their emotions.

For example, if your cat’s whiskers are relaxed and pointed away from his face, he’s probably in a happy mood.

They protect cats’ eyes

Not only do cats have whiskers around their nose and mouth, but they have whiskers around their eyes, too. When anything touches the whiskers over their eyes, they’ll blink or move their head away, which keeps their eyes protected.

“Whiskers also help protect the eyes from any debris,” Dr. Wooten said.

Whiskers basically act like eyelashes to prevent anything harmful from getting in your cat’s eyes and causing damage.

Do whiskers help cats balance?

Have you ever heard that whiskers help with a cat’s balance? This is a pretty common misconception.

A cats’ ability to keep his balance comes from his inner ears, just like it does for other animals.

Their whiskers do help with their spatial awareness and ability to judge distances, though, which can make it seem like they affect their balance.

Why are my cat’s whiskers so long?

Cats’ whiskers may seem really long, but they’re actually the perfect size for their bodies.

Whiskers grow in proportion to a cat’s width. So a chubbier cat would have longer whiskers than one who’s not so chubby.

Cats need them to be that long to help them determine if they can fit into certain spaces — kind of like measuring tape.

“Whiskers are long because the cat uses them to sense the environment like antennae,” Dr. Wooten said. “They literally ‘touch’ and explore the world with their whiskers the same way we touch and explore the world with our fingers.”

Do cats’ whiskers fall out?

Cats will sometimes shed their whiskers like fur, but most of the time they’ll grow back.

If it seems like your cat is missing whiskers all of a sudden or is starting to lose a lot of whiskers, talk to your vet to find out if there is an issue.

Can you cut a cat’s whiskers?

You should never cut your cat’s whiskers!

Cutting a cat’s whiskers doesn’t hurt because they have no nerves (similar to hair), but it could seriously affect his spatial awareness. (Pulling out a cat’s whiskers would hurt, though, as there are nerves at the base of the whiskers.)

If you cut a cat’s whiskers, he could become disoriented and unable to judge distances.

“It doesn’t physically hurt the cat, but if you cut its whiskers, you deprive the cat of all the information they provide, which can harm or confuse your cat,” Dr. Wooten said.

So cats use their whiskers for a variety of purposes — to communicate, to navigate the world and protect themselves. Basically they’re super important (which is why you should leave them just as nature intended!).