Are whiskers advanced navigational tools? Extra-sensory wonder filaments? Get ready for hugs indicators? All that and more.

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closeup of a cat's whiskers
Credit: darkbird77 / Getty

Whiskers. They tickle your nose when kitty comes in for nuzzles and look funny when sprinkled with dust bunnies found under the bed. But why do cats have whiskers in the first place?

Let's talk first about what they are. Nachamari Rivera-Rios, DVM, is on the veterinary team at Riverside Cat Hospital in Okemos, Mich. She says cat whiskers can be found over cheeks, upper and lower lips, and brows. They're made of the protein keratin, which is also in a cat's claw sheaths and fur. The Latin scientific name for whiskers is vibrissae, the root of which means 'to vibrate'.

What Are Cat Whiskers For?

Basically, cat whiskers are like dozens of little radar sensors that assist with navigation. "They're intimately connected to sensory 'hubs', similar to the tips of our fingers. They help cats with spatial orientation and assessment of their environment," Rivera-Rios says. "Cat whiskers can even sense if a surface is hard or soft."

By detecting changes in air currents, whiskers help cats determine the shape, size, and speed of objects in their path. This is essential feedback for living a cat's best life, including assessing the "if I fits, I sits" response and whether they can slink under a door to how they balance when they jump and climb various places.

The question of why cats have whiskers and, more importantly, what they do with them, has been studied for decades, including most recently by an interdisciplinary team at Northwestern University. In April 2021, it released findings from research exploring how whiskers communicate touch to a cat's brain. This is tricky, because it happens at the "base of the whisker...hidden inside the follicle, a deep pocket that embeds the whisker within the skin." What the team discovered is "when whiskers touch an object, they form an "S"-shaped bend within the follicle. By bending into this "S" shape, the whisker pushes or pulls on sensor cells, which then send touch signals to the brain."

Rivera-Rios says that unlike other hairs along their body, cats can move whiskers voluntarily, which also allows them to express their emotional state with whisker position. And...and...she adds that your cat's whiskers can talk to you! "Whiskers can curve forward and toward you to signal a kitty hug," she says.

Not gonna lie: we're probably gonna spend hours watching for this subtle shift from our own cats.

Why Cat Whiskers Are So Long

"Whiskers are, for the most part, almost as long as the cat's body is wide," Rivera-Rios says. "The tips of whiskers are thin, flexible, and very sensitive. While all mammals' whiskers are tapered, long whiskers are unique to species that need to acquire three-dimensional orientation in complex environments."

It's important to note, she says, that some cats have really short or curly whiskers which may not be as useful as standard whiskers. So breeds such as the Cornish rex, Devon rex, Selkirk rex, and Sphynx have to amp up their sensory superpowers in other ways, perhaps relying more on sight or smell.

Additionally, if kitty starts ebbing to the chonky side, their whiskers won't grow to match expansion. So develop a nutrition plan with your veterinarian to keep your cat from getting overweight and their whiskers in top form.

Cats can also develop "whisker fatigue", a condition that makes them agitated or stressed when they're overstimulated by everything these wispy antennae pick up, and they can't bear to have them touch anything. Cat Hospital of Tucson states you might notice this particularly if kitty refuses to eat or drink from their usual dishes, or paces in front of them and meows. An easy fix? Switch to more shallow and wide bowls and plates so whiskers float above them freely.

Why You Should Never Cut Cat Whiskers

Trimming or cutting a cat's whiskers is a big no-no.

"Cutting whiskers isn't necessary and may impact your cat's ability to utilize these important sensory structures," Rivera-Rios says. "For example, if very young kittens have their whiskers trimmed, they may be less exploratory. Whiskers are the most important sensory inputs before kittens' eyes and ears open up!"

Now sometimes, cats' whiskers fall out or break, but Rivera-Rios says not to worry, as kitties have plenty of other whiskers to compensate for the missing one until it grows back. "A new whisker should erupt in roughly 7–10 days, though it may take several weeks for the whisker to reach its full length," she says. "However, if your cat is losing whiskers excessively, please seek veterinary attention."

Learn more about keeping your BFF (best furry friend!) happy and healthy in our special series, Feline Fine.