Copyright (c) 1997, Roanoke Times

DATE: Sunday, February 2, 1997               TAG: 9702030002
COLUMN: Claws & Paws


Q: My cat has long whiskers on its face and I wondered why they had them as we don't. My mom said the cats needed them to walk through narrow places, but I don't see how that could help Can you tell me why cats have whiskers, please?

A: Whiskers occur in many species of animal, but those on cats are probably the best developed. Nearly all cats have whiskers that extend out about twice the width of their faces, and some have whiskers that extend much further. Whiskers help when they go out hunting at night. Although they have very good night vision, cats cannot see in absolute darkness. When there is very little light the whiskers provide essential information about the lay of the land and the movements of the prey.

Cats have whiskers on the back of each front leg and on the eyebrows, lips, cheeks and chin. The ones on the face act as a sort of "radar" that can detect something as faint as an air current and may be used to decide whether a cat can enter a narrow place. (Mom is right.) The eyebrow and cheek whiskers help cats avoid eye injuries when exploring thick undergrowth or your closet.

This sensitivity explains why some cats hate having their whiskers touched. It also is the reason some cats are reluctant to eat or drink out of small, deep dishes: The rims are in contact with their whiskers.

Fully grown whiskers are twice as thick as normal cat hair. The root is about three times deeper than an ordinary hair root and has a special blood supply and a network of sensory nerves, which accounts for the sensitivity.

The whiskers are shed from time to time, but they usually lose only one at a time, as it takes two to three weeks to grow a replacement.

Whiskers are usually white, except in Burmese cats and all-black cats. Some black-and-white cats have a mixture of black and white whiskers.

The whiskers are also mobile. Cats usually angle their chin and lip whiskers forward when greeting their owners or another cat but move them back out of harm's way when eating or fighting. Each tuft can move independently, so a cat can use them to do more than one thing at a time. For example, the top lip whiskers can point forward to warn of obstacles while the bottom lip whiskers are keeping tabs on a captured mouse.

Some mother cats chew off the whiskers of their more adventurous kittens; they might be trying to keep them at home until they are large enough to make it on their own. However, you should never intentionally trim your cat's whiskers. Regrowth could take months - a long time for your cat to wander around without one of its essential senses.

LENGTH: Medium:   51 lines

by CNB