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Mountain Home Magazine

The Why of Whiskers

M. Sundstrom

My dad told me the following story that his mother, my Grandma Morrow, told him. She was working down in Tiadaghton, doing something for the railroad, I think. I don’t know the year. There was a cat hanging around her work area and Grandma, for some reason, wondered what would happen if she pulled the kitty’s whiskers. Not hard—just a little tug (don’t try this at home!) to satisfy her curiosity. So she did, and what happened was that the kitty threw up.

Interesting. Nowhere in my search for information on animal whiskers did I find anything about that being the reaction to a tweak on the afore-mentioned body hair, although I did see stern warnings against trimming/cutting. And Dad told me the story when I was really little, perhaps to forestall any desire on my part to experiment with that kind of activity.

He was successful in that regard, so I can’t tell you from first-hand experience if that’s what happens or not. Grandma could have been pulling both our legs as well as the cat’s whiskers.

What I can tell you is that many, if not most, land mammals, as well as some who live in and around the water (think otter or walrus or seal), have cranial vibrissae. These tactile hairs are on the bristly side—stiffer than body hair/fur but still flexible, with a range of thickness. If you have cat or dog companions you may occasionally find a shed whisker. Pick it up and examine it—its texture and malleability are really quite unique.

A cat’s whiskers are rooted more deeply than body hair and grow from special follicles that have sensory nerves. The number, length, and even the color of whiskers varies from cat to cat, but the arrangement of them on the part of the face called the whisker pad is not random. Vibrissae are multi-functional; I saw them referred to as GPS units, radar, and the Swiss Army knife of the kitty’s sensory tool kit. Obviously they help with navigation in tight spots or when sight is compromised, but feline and canine whiskers may also indicate state of mind or mood. Watch your dog or cat closely and you’ll see that while most times whiskers stand fairly straight out they do every now and then go flat against the animal’s face. If you’re familiar enough with your friend’s persona you will be able to determine what that flattening behavior means in frame-of-mind terms.

Just remember—no whisker pulling allowed! 

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