The Star-Herald

The scoop on cat whiskers

Of all the enchanting features of felines, few are as fascinating as their impressive whiskers.

Whiskers are so adorable on a cat. Have you ever noticed the way they move when the cat’s nose is moving, or how they tickle your face when the cat is close to you?  Well, to us humans they are a sweet part of our cat’s irresistible charm, but to a cat their whiskers are so much more.

The word “whisker” dates to around 1600 and was a playful formation from the Middle English word “wisker,” meaning anything that whisks or sweeps.  Your cat’s whiskers are like little brooms.

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 but on the jaw above the eyes and on the back of the forelegs as well.

There are usually about 12 mystacial whiskers on each side of the muzzle, some cats may have more, and these are the longest of the facial vibrissae.

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.  

If a cat uses a narrow food or water bowl, the pressure to its sensitive parts can cause what is known as “whisker stress.” Yes, that is a thing. If your cat scoops food out with a paw or knocks food on the floor to eat, consider using a wider bowl.

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.

Mystacial (facial) whiskers are connected to muscles that allow the cat to move them.

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.

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 to cut those adorable things, anyway?

Whiskers do shed; however, they do grow back on their own.

Before reading this article from “Mother Nature Network,” I really never thought of watching the whiskers on my cat and what she is telling me.  I guess from now on I will, especially if they are pointed out front and in hunting mode.

Speaking of hunting mode, my 14-year-old cat was making an awful sound one night.  I was relaxing in my chair enjoying my book, when I heard a loud gurgle, then a meow. I went to investigate in the kitchen and there was a “gift” that my kitty was proudly displaying: a live mouse in her mouth.  Now I am not scared of mice, but when you see only the tail coming out of one side of the cat’s mouth — well, let’s just say, when my cat opened her mouth and the mouse got loose, I start running. The mouse was running and the cat just sat there on the floor looking at me; it was like mayhem here.  

Not sure what happened to the mouse but I’m happy to say that I have not seen it again.  Pretty good for a fat, lazy, spoiled 14-year-old cat.

If you are looking for a feline friend, look no further than the Central Aroostook Humane Society at 24 Cross Street, Presque Isle.   We have some wonderful cats looking for that loving home. We are open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed for lunch 12 to 12:30 p.m.  Please be responsible: spay and neuter your pets.

Gail Wieder is a member of the Board of Directors of the Central Aroostook Humane Society.

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