What Are Cat Whiskers For?
Technically whiskers are known as vibrissae and the cat features a number of these strengthened hairs on different sections of its body. Some are on the cheek pad, some are above the eyes, on the chin and surprisingly enough – at the backs of the front legs.
On average the cat has twenty four whiskers, twelve on each side of the nose, formatted in four horizontal rows. They’re able to move both frontwards, when the cat is inquisitive, threatening, or examining something, and backwards, when it is defensive or purposely avoiding touching something. The upper two rows can be moved independently of the lower two, and the strongest whiskers are in rows two and three.
Anatomically the whiskers are greatly enlarged and stiffened hairs more than double the thickness of average hairs. They’re embedded in the tissue of the cat’s upper lip to a depth three times that of other hairs, and they’re provided with a multitude of nerve-endings which carry the information regarding any contact they make or any shifts in air-pressure.
All whiskers are sensitive sensors of motion, however it’s the overly long whiskers on the cat’s upper lip pads that are by far the most crucial whiskers.
Cat whiskers are feelers that enable them to tell whether an opening is large enough for it to squeeze through. However the fact is more complicated and more noteworthy. Besides their apparent purpose as feelers that are sensitive to touch, cats whiskers also function as air-current sensors.
As the cat moves along in the dark it needs to maneuver past solid objects without touching them. Each solid object it comes near causes slight swirls in the air, minute disruptions in the air current, and the cat’s whiskers are so amazingly sensitive that they are able to read these air shifts and react to the presence of solid obstructions even without touching them.
Cats whiskers are especially essential for night hunting. We recognize this from the following observations:
- A cat with perfect whiskers can kill flawlessly both in the light and in the dark
- A cat with damaged whiskers can kill cleanly only in the light. In the dark it misjudges its killing-bite and plunges its teeth into the wrong section of the prey’s body.
This signifies that in the dark, where precise visual sense is obstructed, healthy whiskers are capable of performing as a extremely sensitive guidance device. They have an amazing, split-second ability to determine the body outline of the prey and guide the cat’s bite to the nape of the animal’s neck.
Somehow the tips of the whiskers must show off the details of the form of the prey, like a blind person reading braille, and in a split second tell the cat how to respond. Photos of cats carrying mice in their jaws after capturing them show that the whiskers are literally en-wrapped around the rodent’s body, continuing to transmit information about the slightest motion, should the prey still be alive.
Because the cat is by nature predominantly a nocturnal hunter, its whiskers are understandably vital to its survival.