Whether cats are cute because of their whiskers or whiskers are cute because they come on cats we may never know, but one thing is certain: cats and whiskers make an irresistible combination. Some are exuberant like the grand mustache of a Victorian gentleman while others are demure and flirtatious. But whatever form they take, whiskers are so much more than vestigial accessories; in fact, a cat would be hard-pressed to perform many of its formidable feline feats without them. Here we reveal some of the mysteries behind these spectacular specialized hairs.
1. The word “whisker” dates to around 1600 and was originally a playful formation from the Middle English word “wisker” meaning anything that whisks or sweeps. Your cat’s whiskers are like little brooms!
2. Also called “vibrissae” or tactile hairs, whiskers are two to three times thicker than regular cat hair and are found not only on either side of the muzzle (those ones are called mystacial whiskers), but on the jaw, above the eyes and on the back of the forelegs as well.
Whiskers: They're alive! (Photo: Hjvannes/Wikimedia Commons)
3. There are usually about 12 mystacial whiskers on each side of the muzzle (although some cat have more); these are the longest of the facial vibrissae.
4. Unlike human hair, whiskers are deeply embedded and connected to the nervous system. The whisker tips are equipped with sensory organs called proprioceptors that help the cat determine an object’s distance, direction and even surface texture. (Could this be the source of a cat’s magical super powers?)
5. If a cat is required to use a narrow food or water bowl, the pressure to its sensitive parts can cause what is known as “whisker stress.” (Yes, that’s a thing.) If your cat scoops food out with a paw or knocks food on the floor to eat, consider using a wider bowl.
"Do these whiskers make me look fat?" (Photo: Kostenko Olga/Shutterstock)
6. A cat’s whiskers correspond to the width of its body; it uses them to know whether or not it can fit through narrow spaces – in general, the chubbier a cat, the wider its whiskers. (It occurs to us this would be a helpful automobile feature for city driving.)
7. The whiskers on the back of the front legs help a cat in climbing and importantly, they help when the cat is in contact with prey; they act as another set of eyes when determining where to deliver the fatal bite. (Sorry, birds and mice.)
8. Mystacial whiskers are connected to muscles that allow the cat to move them.
9. Whiskers often indicate mood. Pulled back against the cheeks can mean kitty is scared or angry; relaxed whiskers mean a relaxed and happy cat. Whiskers pointed out front and tense generally mean the cat is feeling aggressive or is in hunting mode; the cat may also be curious if it is taking a reading of the environment.
The Devon Rex has just a whisper of whiskers. (Photo: Kostenko Olga/Shutterstock)
10. Some breeds, like the Cornish Rex and Devon Rex (a delightfully alien-looking cat described by the The Cat Fancier’s Association as a madcap mix of a “cat, a dog, a monkey, and Dennis the Menace”) have short, curly whiskers.
11. A Maine coon cat that lives in Finland named Fullmoon’s Miss American Pie (AKA “Missi”) holds the record for longest whiskers in the world; in 2005, Guinness World Records measured them at a whopping 7.5 inches long!
12. Thankfully, Missi’s whiskers have evaded trimming – cutting a cat’s whiskers should never, ever be done. It would be like taking away a human’s vision or sense of touch. (And who in the world would ever want cut those adorable things anyway?)
13. Whiskers do shed, however, but don’t worry. They grow back on their own, allowing the natural cycle of accomplishment and cuteness to continue.
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