by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Whiskers are special thick hairs connected to muscles and nerves that help the cat assess its surroundings. There are whiskers on the sides of the face, around the mouth, on the chin, above the eyes and behind the front legs. Whiskers are used for sensing objects by touch and for detecting air movement and possibly temperature and smells.
Whiskers are also used in communication, the position and mobility are indications of their mood and state of readiness to react to any stimulation. Not all whiskers are straight, some of the Rex breeds have curly whiskers and some Sphynx cats do not have whiskers at all.
Like any hair, whiskers will grow to a specific length and eventually fall off. A new whisker will grow in place of the old one. Whiskers usually fall out in rotation so that there are still enough in each area to guide the cat.
Trauma to the whiskers is painful as they are sensitive and attached to nerves. Young kittens can loose or break whiskers when playing roughly, these will soon grow back. Other reasons for loss of multiple whiskers include allergies, fleas, infection, brittle whiskers, trauma or stress, groomed or bitten off by other pets. Cutting a cat’s whiskers is considered animal abuse.
When a cat loses or breaks multiple whiskers it will feel disoriented and off balance as it cannot correctly read the environment around it. Other signs include not walking straight, reluctance to jump or not judging distances correctly, inability to stand up, and a lack of confidence. Where the cat has to interact with other cats there may be aggression as he cannot communicate correctly without a full set of whiskers.
Whiskers will typically grow back within about 2 months, depending on the reason for the loss. Kittens will regrow whiskers faster than older cats. If the whiskers do not grow back, or fall out soon after regrowing, then a visit to the vet is necessary to identify the reason for the loss.