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Why Do Dogs & Cats Have Whiskers?

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

In this lesson we'll look at why dogs and cats have whiskers, what exactly these structures are, and the many purposes they serve for our furry friends.

What Are Whiskers?

Have you ever been in a dark room and had to feel your way around with your arms? Using your arms allows you to avoid bumping into things such as chairs and other obstacles, as well as feel along the walls to see where the edges of the room are.

We use our sense of vision a lot more than we think about, but sometimes we have to supplement it when our vision just isn't enough. Cats and dogs do this too, but instead of using their arms to feel around, they have special structures called vibrissae. You may have heard of these, because we more commonly call them whiskers. The name 'vibrissae' comes from the Latin 'vibrio', which means 'vibrate'.

Whiskers are sensory structures that help cats and dogs navigate their world.
cat whiskers

Whiskers are not like the other hairs on your pet, because whiskers are actually touch receptors that are connected to the muscles and the nervous system of the animal's body. In this way, they are more like fingers that feel around and take in sensory information from the environment. You'll most often find whiskers on the face around the mouth, but also above the eyes and even on the back of the front legs.

The Functions of Whiskers

Whiskers are really important to your feline or canine friend because they not only provide information about the external environment, but information about body position as well. What helps with this is a sensory organ at the tip of the whisker called a proprioceptor. This organ sends sensory information to the animal's brain to help it make decisions about what it should do next. Should I go left or right? Can I even fit into that space? Is there danger on the horizon? Can I fit my head under that chair to get my toy? Whiskers help answer all of these questions, even when it's dark.

Dogs use their whiskers to find things that are right under their noses.
Dog whiskers

But whiskers also help with vision even when it's not dark. Dogs are not able to focus on close-up objects, so whiskers can play a role in helping to find things on the ground that are right under their noses. Whiskers are also protective structures, because when they brush up against something, that is a trigger for the animal to blink and protect their eyes from possible injury. For cats, whiskers also aid in measuring distances. Have you ever seen a cat walking along a narrow ledge or leap gracefully from one surface to another? Whiskers play a role in these actions as well.

Whiskers help cats makes those graceful leaps from one surface to another.
cat jumping

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