I wrote this article many years ago. And since, quite recently, we've become "cat people" I thought those of you who are also owned by a cat might enjoy this.
That's our Sister Agnes in the picture, a rescued stray, come to stay. And getting darned fussy about her food!
If a cat has nine lives it might be because of its whiskers. There are about 24 whiskers on the upper lip of a cat and more above their eyes, on their chin and on the back of their forelegs. Look at how many ways they use them.
- To get around in the dark.
- For measuring an opening to see if it will fit through.
- For communicating with other cats.
- For hunting.
- To tell whether or not the mouse or other prey they just caught is trying to escape.
- To avoid bumping into things.
- As protection from eye injury.
- To detect air currents.
- To send signals to humans.
The whiskers around the cats’ nose are movable and are more than twice as thick as ordinary hairs. They are called vibrissae, a word that reminds us of vibrating. When something vibrates around the cat like air currents or objects, the whiskers send a signal to the cat. The whiskers are as wide as the cats’ body so if they touch the sides of an opening the cat knows it will not fit through.
Whiskers help a cat hunt. Night hunters like housecats and leopards have longer whiskers than day hunters like cheetahs. The night hunting cats will push the facial vibrissae forward and use them as sensors while they hunt. Even the shorter whiskers over the eyes and on the cheeks which are not movable are still very useful. When these whiskers are touched the cat blinks, which protects the eye from harmful objects.
Cats are farsighted. They can clearly spot a small darting animal from a distance, but will need those whiskers handy when the critter is caught. The cat will rotate its whiskers down to check on the size and shape or to detect if the mouse or prey is trying to escape.
When a cat wants to send a message it uses its whiskers. A cat out for a stroll will have its whiskers fanned out as far as they will go. If it meets another cat the whiskers are held in close. They are pulled close at suppertime too. A fussy kitty does not want bits of food trapped in its lovely whiskers!
An angry or frightened cat will have its whiskers pulled all the way back. This can happen with another cat, a snarling dog or some other kind of threat.
Cats do shed their whiskers but not all at once. The whiskers should never be cut or pulled on. Children should be made aware of how harmful it is to the animal when the whiskers are damaged. And too many missing whiskers will have Mr. Boots in a fix—fast! The cat’s ability to get around will be severely impaired.
Take another look at the above list and focus on one or two of them as you watch your pet in action. Those whiskers keep kitty in touch with the world and may even be the secret to his nine lives.