Can you imagine a cat or a rabbit without whiskers? A fox would look positively naked without them!
But whiskers are not just there to add a dash of style to a squirrel’s — or any other animal’s — face. Whiskers are incredibly important.
What are whiskers?
Whiskers are not just long hairs. They are a special type of hair that is thicker and more ridged than fur. The roots of whisker hair follicles are packed with a massive amount of blood vessels and nerves. This makes whiskers an extra-sensitive tool. Think of it like an antenna for mammals.
Words to know
Follicle: A small cavity, sac or gland.
Forage: To search for food.
Navigate: To travel over land or water.
Whiskers can’t feel anything, just like your hair can’t feel anything. However, when whiskers touch something, they vibrate. This activates the nerves under the skin. A dog’s whiskers are as sensitive as your fingertips.
Where are they?
Whiskers are found on almost all mammals, except duck-billed platypuses, echidnas and us humans. Whiskers can be found around the mouth and eyes. Some animals even have whiskers between the toes on their paws.
Manatees have them all over their heads and bodies. Most other mammals have whiskers arranged in an ordered pattern. Rats have five rows on either side of their noses.
What do whiskers do?
Whiskers serve many important functions for the animals that have them. Let’s take a look at some of those functions:
Second sight: Whiskers help mammals navigate the world around them. Whiskers can tell if there is a change in air currents. From this an animal can gather information about the size and shape of any objects nearby, even if they can’t see it with their eyes. Whiskers can even detect if something is moving and how fast! Animals don’t just wait for information to come to their whiskers. They move their whiskers around to stir up air currents that bounce back with information about the environment around them. It’s like submarine radar or bat echolocation. Whiskers are particularly valuable to animals who move around in the dark or have bad eyesight.
On the hunt: It’s no surprise that whiskers help animals find their food, whether it’s a foraging mouse or a cougar tracking prey. They even help a walrus find clams and shellfish on the bottom of the ocean floor. Walruses have 600 to 700 short, tough whisker points. Each can move together or by itself.
Natural eye goggles: Worried about dust in the air? Grass in front of you? Never fear. Whiskers are here to protect mammals! A little speck of dust can do real damage to an eyeball. Plus it hurts. Whiskers that frame the eye catch those pesky particles before they get in. Then all a dog or other animal has to do is shake its head to get rid of it. A bobcat prowling through meadows has whiskers to block tall grasses from smacking them in the eyes.
Tight squeeze: They also protect animals by showing how much room they have to move around, even in tight spaces. Groundhogs use their whiskers to figure out just how wide their tunnels must be to accommodate their bodies — at least as wide as their whiskers — in their underground dens.
Feeling emotional?: Whiskers can also send a message about how an animal is feeling. When a cat’s whiskers are folded on their face, that means stay back. They don’t want you close. Sprawled and fanned out whiskers shows a cat is curious, maybe checking out something new.
Protect their whiskers
Whiskers are sensitive, so you never want to cut your pet’s whiskers, and don’t pull on them. It is painful for your furry friends.
Now that you know all about whiskers, head outside to take a look. Which animals do you see sporting bristles? How are they using them? Do they have just a couple of whiskers or a lot? What size are they? Aren’t whiskers incredible!
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