There are several wives’ tales concerning the purpose of cat whiskers. One says that a cat’s whiskers span the width of the cat’s body to help the cat determine if it can fit into small spaces. Another is that a cat’s sense of balance is controlled by its whiskers. There are even those that say that cats with more than twenty-four whiskers are psychic. But, what are the real purpose of these whiskers?
A cat’s whiskers are thick hairs that are rooted deeply in the cat’s face among a rich bed of nerves. In addition to the ones on their face (mystacial hairs), they also have whiskers on their eyebrows, chin, and “ankles” (supercilary hairs.) The hairs don’t contain nerves, but contain special sensory cells that deliver information to the cat’s brain.
The mystacial hairs, like all the other whiskers, help the cat navigate its environment. The long whiskers, just as the wives’ tale suggests, help the cat determine if it can fit into small spaces. The information the whiskers provide does not stop there. They also help cats dominate their prey. When its prey gets close to a cat’s mouth, the cat can no longer see it. The whiskers form a basket around the prey and the vibrations sent up the whiskers tell the cat where to make the killing bite. Another name for these whiskers, the vibrissae, takes its name from this very vibrational quality. The vibrissae pick up changes in wind current and pressure. This helps a cat navigate in situations where its eyesight might not be as effective, such as night hunting. These long whiskers also are a sign of a cat’s emotional state. When they are hunting or feeling aggressive, the whiskers are closer to the head. When the cat is relaxed and happy, the whiskers are pushed forward.
The supercilary hairs help cats achieve those elegant landings. Again, the vibrational sensitivity is the key. The wives’ tale about a cat’s balance being controlled by their whiskers is not accurate, even though it is rooted in truth. A cat’s balance is controlled by its inner ear, just like ours. However, if you alter the whiskers, you alter the cat’s information source. The faulty data will cause the cat to misunderstand its surroundings and the result is a less than ideal ability to maneuver.
What about the tale regarding cats with twenty-four whiskers? We know that these amazing hairs provide many benefits to the cat, but since all cats have an average of twenty-four whiskers, that would mean that most all cats are psychic. The jury is still out on that one.
Article written by April Preston