Cutting A Cat’s Whiskers and Why You Shouldn’t

What are whiskers?

Also known as vibrissae, feline whiskers are specialised tactile hairs that are found on either side of the muzzle and are known as sinus hairs or mystacial whiskers. Vibrissae are also found above the eyes, on the muzzle and behind the wrists, however, mystacial vibrissae are the longest tactical hairs on the body and are placed in three well-defined rows of twelve. The cat’s whiskers are 2-3 times thicker than pelage (fur), embedded deeper, and have a rich supply of nerves leading to the barrel cortex of the cat’s brain. These specialised hairs are highly sensitive to pressure or touch, and help the cat sense his or her environment. 

Function of the whiskers

Proprioception is the cat’s ability to sense of self-movement and body position. For example, most of us can close our eyes and accurately touch another part of the body such as your nose or elbow. The whiskers play a crucial role in proprioception.

The mystacial vibrissae (whiskers) are surrounded by a highly developed sheath of muscle tissue which enables them to move both forward and backward (known as ‘whisking’), and are approximately the same width as the cat, and act as touch receptors, allowing cats to safely navigate through narrow spaces.

Cats typically hunt in low light, and rely on the detection of movement to stalk their prey, however, they lose their ability to focus on objects closer than 30 centimetres away.  Once the object is within grasp, the whiskers sweep forward and provide feedback as to the location and position of their prey, enabling them to deliver that fatal bite.

Whiskers also detect air currents, wind direction and temperature which provide information on the size, shape and even movement of objects, prey or predators nearby.

With so many important functions, the cat’s whiskers are your cat’s fingers to the world.

Can I cut my cat’s whiskers?

Unlike human hair which continues to grow for 3-5 years, a cat’s whiskers stop growing once they reach a set length. Some cats have short whiskers, some have long whiskers. Because they don’t continue to grow, it is not necessary to trim them as we do the claws.  Longhaired cats – especially older and less mobile ones – may benefit from a trim around the tail to prevent mats and fecal contamination, but there is absolutely no need to trim a cat’s whiskers.

Trimming whiskers will decrease a cat’s spacial awareness. Also, while whisker shaft itself contains no nerves, they are connected to a rich nerve supply, and cats are highly sensitive when the whiskers are bent or pulled.

We owe our pets a level of respect by not tampering with or removing whiskers that the cat relies on for continual environmental feedback.

Maintaining a cat’s fur and whiskers

Trimming the claws is often necessary, especially for indoor only or senior cats who may not get the opportunity to naturally wear down the claws. A daily or weekly groom will also reduce the risk of hair matting and remove loose hair from the coat.

Whisker fatigue

While it is well known that whiskers are a similar width to the body, however, there is some variation from cat to cat. Some pet owners may feel it necessary to trim the whiskers, however, there is no disadvantage to having longer whiskers and absolutely no reason to trim them.

Whisker fatigue is allegedly a reluctance or refusal to eat from narrow food bowls which may cause sensitivity if the whiskers touch the side. Boston Magazine published a rebuke on the 7th June 2017 to the New York Times article titled Did the New York Times Publish Fake News About Cats?  which claims a search of Journal of the American Veterinarian Association, the American Journal of Veterinary Research, and the International Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery turned up nothing. A recent study dated 15th June 2020, published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery tested 38 domestic cats to look for evidence of whisker fatigue. Owners withheld food for 12 hours, and fed the cats in their usual food bowl, and filmed the cats eating. The following week, they fed their cats from the whisker friendly dish after withholding food for 12 hours. Researchers found no difference in eating behaviour between the dishes, nor did they find that eating from the whisker-friendly dish increased the amount of time spent eating.

Some cats may dislike the sensation of their whiskers touching the sides of their food and water dishes but many don’t seem to care. If your cat is experiencing issues with narrow food or water bowls, by all means, experiment. You don’t need to purchase a ‘whisker fatigue‘ cat bowl to do so. A plate or wide/shallow food bowl may resolve issues without the need to buy an expensive bowl.

Frequently asked questions

Do groomers cut whiskers?

No, groomers don’t cut whiskers.

Will a cat’s whiskers grow back?

If the whiskers are cut or damaged, they will grow back within a few months.

Does cutting whiskers hurt animals?

Cutting the whiskers themselves won’t hurt the cat, but as they are attached to a rich nerve supply at the base, handling the whiskers is uncomfortable.

Feature image: Pexels, Pixabay