January 30, 2024 | Cat

What is the Function of Cat Whiskers?

Cat whiskers are highly sensitive hairs made of keratin, a protein also found in their claw sheaths. The whisker hairs, also called vibrissae or tactile hair, are embedded deeper in the cat's skin than their fur, and each follicle has many sensitive nerve endings.

Whiskers are the same width as a cat's body and so perfectly serve as a sensory function, allowing cats to judge the distance between things and how far away objects are from their face and body, with the ability to detect the slightest vibration in the air.

Whiskers aren't just hair. Whiskers help cats with spatial determination (helping them to answer questions like, "Can I fit through that narrow doorway?"), expressing their feelings and locating their prey. 

Cat with whiskers looking upwards

All cat whiskers work together as "touch organs" for your cat, helping them manoeuvre around furniture or trap that catnip toy they've been stalking. 

Whiskers allow your cat to "see" in the dark because the whiskers pick up on the airflow around them, allowing them to detect their intended object down to its exact location and dimensions. 

You can also tell how your cat is feeling from their body language and by their whiskers.  If their whiskers are flat against their face, it could mean your cat is feeling anxious or threatened.  A relaxed and happy cat will have their whiskers fanned out to the side of their face, but a curious cat will move their whiskers forward to explore or hunt.

The most prominent, obvious place you’ll see whiskers is on the side of your cat’s face, by their mouth. However, shorter whiskers can also be found above their eyes, jawline and on the back of their front legs.

What types of whiskers do cats have?

Mystacial whiskers

These are the whiskers on either side of a cat's nose. Cats use these whiskers to measure the environment they are in - like a built-in tape measure.  They have 12 of these whiskers on either side of their nose, completely symmetrical, which will help them work out if they will fit through an opening.

Superciliary Whiskers

These are the whiskers around their eyebrows. These whiskers help protect your cat's eyes and detect any movement around the eyes, causing them to blink and protect the eye from injury. 

Genal Whiskers

These are the whiskers along their chin. These do a similar job to the superciliary whiskers, particularly useful when your cat is prowling through long grass or bushes; they trigger a blink that will protect your cat's eyes from being damaged.

Carpal Whiskers

These are the Whiskers on the back of their forelegs just above their paws. Domestic cats will be well fed at home, but sometimes they instinctively like to hunt and the carpal whiskers help with this. Cats have great long-sighted vision but can't see things very well up close, which means if their prey is very near, they cannot always see it clearly. The carpal whiskers help them detect their prey so that they can sense, pounce and catch and keep it close with their claws.  

Why are cat whiskers important?

Whiskers are vital to a cat's feline sensors, so they should never be cut or trimmed. If a cat's whiskers are removed, they will lose all sense of their surroundings and feel disoriented.

Cats don't like their whiskers to touch the sides of a drinking bowl, so water must be offered in a large bowl filled to the brim.  

There's no need to clean a cat or their whiskers. A cat will clean its whiskers in their normal grooming process, usually beginning with cleaning around their face and whiskers first, followed by the rest of their body from top to tail.

Old whiskers do fall out but are replaced by new ones, and as your cat grows older, they may turn darker in colour - this is normal.  However, if you notice that your cat is losing whiskers more frequently or they break off, get them checked by a vet in case there are any underlying medical issues.

Medically reviewed by:


Why do cats have whiskers? | Blue Cross

Curious Kitties! Why Do Cats Have Whiskers? – Feliway UK

Why Do Cats Have Whiskers? (and How Many?) │ Hill's Pet