Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?
Seriously, what do they do?!
Whiskers make your pup’s smile extra adorable. But aside from being super cute little tufts of hair, do your dog’s whiskers actually do anything?
Dogs’ whiskers actually have a lot of uses, so they’re really important to your dog.
The Dodo spoke with Dr. Antonio DeMarco, a veterinarian and president of medical operations at GoodVets in Kansas City, Missouri, to find out why dogs have whiskers in the first place.
What are dog whiskers?
All dogs have whiskers, and they’re present when a puppy is born. In fact, they’re some of the first hairs to grow on a dog.
“Whiskers are specialized hairs that arise from hair follicles,” Dr. DeMarco told The Dodo.
Whiskers (or the scientific term, vibrissae), are coarser and thicker than regular hair and are located above a dog’s eyes and on his snout and chin.
They’re also rooted deeper in a dog’s skin. A whisker’s roots are three times deeper than regular hair.
Whiskers are also super sensitive — and your dog uses them for a bunch of different purposes.
What do dog whiskers do?
A dog uses his whiskers to communicate, protect himself and sense the world around him.
They help dogs with spatial awareness
Dogs’ eyesight isn’t great, which is where the whiskers come in. Dogs see better at a distance but have trouble seeing up close. Whiskers act as a radar to detect changes in vibrations in the air to let your dog know where objects are (which is particularly helpful for seeing at night, too).
“[Whiskers] have increased neurologic ability over normal hair,” Dr. DeMarco said.
Basically, that means your dog’s whiskers help him sense things in the world around him. There’s a bunch of nerve endings in the follicles that relay sensations to his brain — kind of like an extra set of eyes.
“Different animals use their whiskers for varying purposes,” Dr. DeMarco explained. “For dogs, they are an extra sense to aid in moving and providing additional sensory information, similar to antennae on insects.”
So when anything touches your dog’s whiskers, or even just makes them vibrate, those nerve endings pick it up and tell your pup’s brain that something’s there.
His whiskers are so sensitive that he can pick up on things nearby that are moving even if they don’t touch him. An object, animal or person will create vibrations in the air when they move, and your dog’s whiskers will actually be able to sense that.
For example, if your dog’s sniffing around a rose bush, his whiskers could sense the thorns and warn his brain so he won’t end up scratching his nose.
It’s almost as if his whiskers are kind of like dog reading glasses, which is honestly pretty wild.
They help dogs communicate
Dog whiskers can also help your pup communicate with other animals and with you.
If he feels threatened, he’ll actually flare his whiskers, letting you — or the perceived threat — know that he’s on edge.
They protect dogs’ eyes
Those whiskers on your dog’s eyebrows can act like extra eyelashes and help keep dirt or dust out of his eyes.
They do this by sensing objects around your dog’s eyes. When something touches the whiskers around your dog’s eyes, it causes him to blink, which prevents potentially harmful things from getting into his eyes.
“Whiskers assist in tactile sense, similar to the touch of skin,” Dr. DeMarco said.
They help dogs with hunting
Whiskers can vary in number and size between breeds and are especially prominent among dogs who were originally bred for hunting.
Dogs who were bred for hunting have denser whiskers than other types of dogs because their whiskers are designed to help them navigate in the woods to avoid trees, branches and other objects that get in their way.
Do dog whiskers fall out?
It’s normal for a dog’s whiskers to fall out every now and then, just like your dog sheds his regular fur. As long as it happens naturally, the whiskers should grow back.
And don’t worry, your dog won’t lose enough whiskers to the point where his senses are affected.
If it seems like your dog has lost a lot of whiskers, you should contact your vet to make sure there isn’t something else causing it.
Can you cut a dog’s whiskers?
You should never cut a dog’s whiskers!
Even though cutting a dog’s whiskers doesn’t hurt because they don’t contain pain receptors (but pulling them out would be painful because the follicles contain nerve endings, just like a hair), losing his whiskers can seriously affect your dog’s spatial awareness.
Since dogs use their whiskers to help them see, cutting their whiskers can leave them disoriented and unable to judge the distance of objects.
You also shouldn’t let a groomer trim your dog’s whiskers (some groomers will trim dogs’ whiskers for aesthetic reasons).
So basically, dogs’ whiskers are super important. They use their whiskers for communication, to help them sense the world around them and to protect their eyes. They’re so much more than just hair!
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