Cats 101: A Guide to Whiskers

Cats 101: A Guide to Whiskers

Our recent blog post all about cats and their senses took a closer look at how cats sense the world around them. Since our cats are such fascinating creatures, we decided that these senses deserved a more detailed deep-dive here on the blog, so this time we’re focusing on something that’s essential for a cat’s sense of touch: whiskers!

What are whiskers?

Whiskers are made of keratin (much like our fingernails!) and are much stronger than hair, and they also don’t contain any nerves - the nerves are found in the follicle, where the whisker meets the cat’s body. Whiskers do, however, have something called a proprioceptor in the whisker tip, which is yet another sensory organ, adding to whiskers’ super powers!

Their Latin name is vibrissae - which also hints at their ability to detect even the slightest of movement or vibration. 

What do whiskers do?

Whiskers are highly sensitive and vital to how a cat senses the world around them, especially their sense of touch. They can detect the slightest movements, and transmit information to the brain in a way that’s pretty similar to how our fingertips work. 

They detect both objects that they’re physically touching, and also those that are further away. Whiskers can pick up on tiny vibrations caused by air currents, which helps cats to detect objects before they get too close to them! So while cats do have better vision than us humans in low light conditions, it’s their whiskers that allow them to navigate in the dark and avoid obstacles.

Whiskers can also act as a mood barometer, and there’s evidence to suggest that cats might use their whiskers to communicate subtle signals. There are tiny muscles around the base of whiskers, which allows cats to move them. Relaxed whiskers mean a relaxed cat, whereas a stressed cat might point their whiskers towards a possible threat, or pin them further back if they’re feeling threatened or unwell.

Where do cats have whiskers?

If you were going to draw a cartoon cat, you’d probably pop a few whiskers on their face, either side of their nose. While you wouldn’t be wrong, there are many more whiskers on a cat’s face - and the rest of their body too. 

Cats’ whiskers are usually fairly symmetrical, with 24 whiskers typically located around the nose (which is more than the average cartoon cat!). But they also have whiskers on the tops of their ears, along the jaw, and even on their legs - these are called carpal whiskers and they help a cat to know where their prey is.

Other animals have whiskers too

It’s not just cats that have whiskers. In fact, most mammals have some kind of whiskers - from horses to mice. Other animals also have their own versions of whiskers, from fish (barbels) to insects (antennae), which function is much the same way!

You can take a look at the full guide to cats’ senses here, in our post on how cats sense the world.