We recently came across a term that we thought might be interesting to research. Whisker stress is a real thing and there is a lot of information on it out there. When you first hear “whisker stress”, you may not be aware there really is such a thing.
We all know that the long hairs that stick out around a cat’s muzzle are called whiskers. Maybe some may even realize the hair above their eyes, or the eyebrows, are whiskers, as well, but did you know that cats have whiskers on the wrists of their forearms? These “hairs” can be up to three times as thick as their fur. They are very sensitive because they are located in areas that are full of blood and nerves.
The most important “job” that the whiskers around a cat’s muzzle is navigation. This is because their whiskers allow them to measure air currents and therefore the cat can “feel” objects that are in their path. Their whiskers, from tip to tip, are about the same width as the cat’s whole body. Have you ever noticed that the whiskers on a bigger cat, like the Maine Coon, are much longer than a smaller cat, like a Siamese? This is to make sure that a cat can fit in a place without getting “stuck”. In these ways, whiskers are essential for navigating. That’s why, some mother cats will chew off the whiskers off of her young kittens. She doesn’t want them to wander off, but to stay close by her. Of course, they will grow back in.
Whiskers also can tell you what your cat is feeling. If they are back against his face, the cat is angry. When they are slightly forward and the tips are pointing down, they are relaxed, happy, “kickin’ back”, as they say. If you notice that his whiskers are tense and pointing forward, he is showing his aggression. This happens mostly when he is hunting.
If the cat senses some sort of danger, the whiskers above his eyes will go into action and tell him to close his eyes, there is danger ahead. In other words, they act as a second set of eyes.
The whiskers on the forearm are used in climbing trees and hunting prey.
Signs of Whisker Stress
Whisker stress is brought on when the nerves in the whiskers are over-stimulated by touch. It is most obvious when the cat eats. If he picks his food out of his dish, one piece at a time and drops it on the floor, and then eats from there, most likely he is suffering from whisker stress, brought on by a dish that is too deep, and his whisker can’t clear its edges. Another way that a cat deals with this problem is to stick his paw in the dish and scoop up a “pawful” of kibble and eat it from the floor. If your cat takes one bite of food, walks away, then a few minutes later comes back again, most likely this is a sign of whisker stress. If he paces in front of his dish, he is telling you that he is not comfortable eating or drinking from that dish. The answer to this problem is, of course, to simply buy a wider dish. Not all cats are bothered by whisker stress.
My Misha has super sensitive whiskers and therefore requires a flatter food dish. Since the water is shared by both cats and Misha has whisker stress, I need to keep the bowl full to the very brim. However, my other cat BoBo, doesn’t suffer from it, so he will eat or drink from any dish.
We cannot express how important it is not to cut or damage the whiskers of a cat in any way. They are nature’s way for a cat to defend themselves, to navigate around, especially at night, and to distinguish if he can or cannot clear a space.