Cats have between 8 and 12 whiskers on each side of their face. Whiskers help to enhance a cat’s senses, especially their short-distance vision, by providing information about their environment.
In fact, cats can measure air flow with their whiskers! Most importantly, cats use their whiskers to gain information about objects they come into contact with, which ultimately helps to navigate their surroundings more efficiently.
It is commonly believed that whiskers are hair, as they often shed just like hair, however whiskers are actually filled with sensitive nerve endings and blood vessels. The whiskers on a cat’s face do the majority of the work, however cats also have whiskers above their eyes, on their chin, and also on their legs. Receptors in the whiskers are designed to feed your cat important information when touching objects, such as how far away an object is, its texture, and more.
Considering kitty whiskers are so sensitive, it can be quite unpleasant for them to touch certain objects, especially repeatedly. Sensitive whiskers can make mealtimes troublesome for certain cats. If a cat’s bowl is too narrow to reach their food or water without their whiskers touching the sides, they may be affected by ‘whisker stress’.
Whisker stress is usually easy to identify. If a cat only eats their food at the very top of their bowl, yet begs for more, this could be a sign. Although many cat owners believe behaviours like these are signs of fussy eating (it certainly can be), it may actually be a cat’s way of communicating they are uncomfortable with their eating arrangements, not the food itself. A cat may meow or hang around their bowl without eating to show that they’re unhappy. Cats who scoop food or water out of their bowl may also be experiencing stress from whisker interference. In the case of water, some cats also dislike getting their whiskers wet.
When a single whisker touches an object just enough to move a distance smaller than the width of a human hair, it sends signals to your cat’s brain. This is an important function that tells your cat whether or not they can fit through a narrow space, for example. This extreme sensitivity explains why certain cats are so particular about their whiskers. Now imagine a cat has to smush all of their whiskers into a restrictive bowl in order to eat – sensory overload! This sensory feedback may overburden some cats, resulting in behavioural changes.
Unexplained behavioural changes – especially when it comes to food, water, and litter box habits – can be a result of whisker stress. Urinating and defecating outside the litter box is a common sign that a cat is voicing their displeasure. Perhaps it is whisker stress, perhaps it’s something else. Whisker stress is a condition that may cat owners are not fully aware of.
Cats should always have free access to fresh, clean water. The water dish itself should be wide and shallow. Consider a continuous flow water fountain to entice your cat and increase their water consumption. When it comes to food, however, every cat is different; some cats are free-fed, while others have a specific mealtime schedule. Regardless of when your cat eats, they need to have a feline-appropriate food bowl. Food dishes should be wide enough that they can fit their face in without the whiskers touching the sides, and the dish should be shallow. This design encourages unrestricted access, and may reduce or eliminate many mealtime problems.
Whiskers. Who would’ve thought they were such intricate and precise measuring tools?
Brandon Forder – also known as The Pet Expert – is vice-president of Canadian Pet Connection, a family-owned and -operated business located in Meaford. He has over twenty-five years of experience specializing in pet nutrition, behaviour, and healthy pet lifestyles. Canadian Pet Connection is an industry leader committed to providing their clients with the highest levels of personal, attentive service. Learn more at www.CanadianPetConnection.ca.