Whiskers – technically known as vibrissae – are extraordinary sensory devices which help animals comprehend the world around them. They are not just for decoration.
Almost all animals have them, although they are about the only bodily hair that has been lost by humans.
Their roots run deeper into the animal’s skin than the fur on the rest of its body, and connect with many more nerve endings.
Sensitive to vibrations as well as touch, whiskers tell cats, dogs and rabbits much about the size and shape of nearby objects.
The pathways that carry information from the whiskers to the brain are similar to the pathways that transmit messages from hands to our brains.
In fact they have been compared with having fingers growing out of the face!
Vibrissae grow most visibly on animals’ faces, clusters above the eyes, on the sides of the cheeks and further back on the cheeks.
Different breeds have different types; some curly-haired dogs (such as the Bedlington Terrier) and cats like the Devon Rex also have curly whiskers.
Dogs have up to 20 whiskers on each side of their upper lips, while cats have about 12 each side of their noses.
Like cats, a rabbit’s whiskers are as long as the body is wide which helps him gauge the width of openings in the dark – handy in your warren.
Whiskers above the eyes provide a blinking reflect so, if something flies at the animal’s face, their whiskers signal to their brain to close their eyes quickly. For cats, shorter whiskers on the back of the front legs help them land safely and detect prey.
Whiskers may – along with other body language such as the ears and tail – give clues to a cat’s mood.
If they are relaxed and sticking out sideways they’re calm and alert; flattened against their cheeks they are angry or scared. Whiskers fall out and re-grow naturally. Never cut or remove them as pets need their whiskers and without them may become disorientated or insecure.
Luckily, rabbits, dogs and cats are not like squirrels which cannot maintain balance without their whiskers.