Whiskers are beneficial for cats since they provide crucial information about their environment. They allow felines to be agile and receptive. However, whiskers sometimes break off due to wear and tear, accidents, or man-made errors. Let’s learn more about whiskers before diving into what happens when whiskers break.
What are whiskers and what are they made of?
Whiskers are scientifically called “vibrissae” from the Latin word “vibrio,” which means to vibrate. They play an important role in a cat’s life. There are 24 whiskers total with a dozen on each side of the cat’s cheeks, arranged in rows of four. Cats also have whiskers on the corners of the nose, mouth, chin, eyebrows, and on the back of their front legs.
Whiskers are made up of mechanoreceptors (tiny tactile receptors). They are responsible for handling information about mechanical pressure. The whiskers’ roots have nerve receptors and blood vessels that allow information to be picked up and sent straight to the brain, powering a cat’s lightning-fast reflexes.
The main component of whiskers is keratin, a protein that is the key structural material for human hair and nails as well as animal claws and horns. Cats do not feel pain when their whiskers are broken since there are no pain receptors on the hair’s shaft. Each whisker has touch receptors with roots that contain nerve receptors and blood vessels.
What are the purposes of a cat’s whiskers?
1. They serve as radar sensors.
Whiskers help cats to “see” objects and the environment by sending information to the brain. Cats can notice solid objects since whiskers detect vibrations on air currents. This is a big help for felines since they do not have keen vision for detail at night and have difficulty focusing on objects up close.
Whiskers transmit information about an object’s shape and size by detecting air current changes. Cats can also find their food and water bowl and avoid bumping into walls despite darkness.
2. They function as body balancers.
Special sensory organs called proprioceptors are located on the tips of a cat’s whiskers. They transmit messages to the brain on the position of the body and limbs. Cats become aware of what each body part is doing because of these sensory organs. This also may explain why cats almost always land on their feet.
3. They communicate emotions.
Whiskers can tell a lot about your cat’s emotions. If the whiskers are relaxed, it could mean your cat is calm and content. Your kitty is happy or curious if the whiskers are elevated above her eyes. If her whiskers are pushed forward, your cat could be watchful or alert.
If the whiskers are flattened in the opposite direction and against the face, it could mean your cat is scared or unhappy. Taut whiskers mean she feels threatened.
4. They keep cats from getting stuck.
Whiskers prompt or warn cats if there are obstructions like thorny grasses in their path. Cats are also aware when they approach narrow spots; they can determine if they can fit or not, thanks to their whiskers.
Your cat’s whiskers vibrate and stimulate the nerves in hair follicles each time an object brushes against them. They are also called tactile hairs although they do not feel anything; they just transmit information to the sensory cells each time a movement or object is detected.
Common Broken Whiskers Symptoms in Cats
Disorientation and Changes in Behavior
Cats tend to avoid human interaction and hide in isolated areas to minimize their feelings of disorientation. They may also feel insecure and won’t be confident enough to move about.
An Increase in Accidents
Cats tend to be more prone to injury and accidents due to broken whiskers.
Since they are disoriented due to the broken whiskers, cats tend to be stressed or anxious. This could be alarming since stress can lead to further loss of whiskers.
Causes of Broken Cat Whiskers
1. Cats Playing Roughly
Whiskers often become broken when cats play rough with their siblings or fellow cats at home. This is common among young and energetic cats. Younger cats usually lose some whiskers when they are around 11 weeks of age, a period when they are also likely to shed their first whiskers. They also suffer from more broken whiskers because they play rougher and explore their surroundings more than older cats do.
You do not have to worry if your young cat suffers from broken whiskers as long as she is not manifesting symptoms like sluggishness, aggressiveness, or loss of appetite.
2. Natural Shedding
Cats can lose their whiskers because of natural shedding. This is normal since whiskers are made of the same substance as a cat’s fur. It is not a cause for concern as long as your cat is not shedding whiskers more than usual.
Abnormal whisker breakage could be due to stress. Stress leads to multiple whisker loss in a short period of time. Since cats become disoriented and lose tactile sense, it could lead to even more stress. Stress may also occur due to a noisy environment or changes in the household, such as the arrival of a new family member.
4. Injury and Trauma
Broken whiskers can also be caused by injury and trauma. A fall or a blow to the cheek can cause whiskers to become broken or fall off. Needless to say, whiskers can grow again and cats can heal from physical injuries.
Skin infections like ringworm, a type of fungal infection, may also result in broken cat whiskers.
Other reasons why cats lose their whiskers:
- Facial bacterial infection
- Immune disorder
- Mite infestation
- Kids playing pranks
- Accidents during grooming
Will a cat die if you cut its whiskers?
No, a cat will not die if you cut its whiskers. However, she will become disoriented, scared, and may become very stressed. For this reason, you should never trim or cut them.
What happens if you touch a cat’s whiskers?
If you touch a cat’s whiskers, the nerves in the deep hair follicles react to the touch. This is similar to when a whisker touches an object and then deliberately moves. That is where the name vibrissae comes from.
A cat’s whiskers have nerve receptors that allow cats to communicate emotions, balance their bodies, and prevent them from getting stuck. They also serve as radar sensors to enable cats to “see” in the dark. However, whiskers can become broken or damaged due to injury, stress, natural shedding, and rough play. Cats can become disoriented or stressed and may display disturbing behavioral changes. Consult your vet on the right things to do if your cat is manifesting other symptoms like loss of appetite, aggressiveness, and sluggishness.
Image: istockphoto.com / Ewa Saks