Cat tales: All about whiskers
I am a proud being. All cats are, whether they are lions, tigers, leopards or us domestic breeds, and even Tom the street cat and Susan the alley cat. Everything about us has evolved from the wild cats, the long line of hunters and predators. We may look like luxurious balls of fur but we are designed for the purpose of stalking, hunting and killing.
Still not convinced? Okay let me explain, we are as sensitive as a smart TV or a smart phone.
Did you know what happens if a cat’s whiskers accidentally touch a mouse in the dark? The cat reacts like a mousetrap — fast and precise. Our whiskers are delicate sense organs of touch, just like finger tips are for you humans. You must have heard that it is the length of our whiskers that tell us if can go through a passage or a tunnel. If the whisker is uncomfortably pressed against something, we immediately know that it is not wide enough for the rest of us to pass through.
Mind you if the cat becomes fat, the whisker system does not work anymore. The other day fat Tikki, the neighbour’s ginger cat got stuck in a little bucket where he thought he could sit cosy, but had to be pulled out after many loud meows and even more embarrassment.
Our whiskers are sensitive to vibrations in air waves and as air moves, the whiskers vibrate, and cats can use the messages in these vibrations to sense the presence, size and shape of nearby objects without seeing or touching. Isn’t that amazing? Aren’t we wonderful creatures?
Do you know how many whiskers we have? Don’t go counting and please don’t pull at them or touch them. Whiskers help protect our eyes and when you touch our whiskers, we blink in reflex. We don’t like our whiskers to be touched because it gives us irritating sensations. Sometimes when they touch the sides of the eating dish if it is not wide enough, we don’t really enjoy our meal.
We have about 12 whiskers on either side of the nose, arranged in four rows in a pattern, as individual as your fingerprints. The strongest and thickest are in the middle rows. You may also see more whiskers on other parts of our bodies. There are some high on our cheeks, above the eyes, and on the back of the front legs which are sometimes known as ‘paw whiskers’. These are more useful in our wilder cousins who need to catch and grip their prey with their forelegs.
Whiskers are more visible on our furry bodies because they are twice as thick as ordinary hair, and the roots are set three times deeper. The inner ends are connected to muscle, which allows them to be moved backwards and forwards. As whiskers are richly supplied with nerve endings, cats can sense the teeny weeniest change in their surroundings such as air currents, changes in air pressure or temperature. This is why some cats like sitting right in front of the air conditioning vents and some don’t Persians do and mostly Siamese and Tonkinese don’t.
People think that cats can see in the dark. Well, our night vision is better than you humans, but what really helps us get around in the dark are our whiskers. Now let tell you something really interesting. Cats that are born blind grow longer and thicker whiskers than cats who can see because blind cats need whiskers even more. In fact, at birth the whiskers are ready to work even before the eyes and ears start functioning in a kitten.
Whiskers say a lot about our moods. When we feel affectionate, our whiskers will point forward and down, but when we feel aggressive, they will be forward and up. When we are angry or scared, they become flattened against our cheeks as a way of protecting them.
Coming back to where I started from, my whiskers not only make me look handsome, they are an important system that brings me messages about my environment. So when you touch us and stroke us, please pay special attention to our whiskers, and we will love and respect you more.