Most people are aware that a cat has at least 24 whiskers on its face. These hairs are also referred to as vibrissae, or tactile hairs, and are at least three times thicker than regular cat hair. Surprisingly, a cat can also have whiskers on certain other parts of its body.
Do cats have whiskers on their legs?
Yes, cats have whiskers on their legs, specifically on the backs of their front legs. These are called carpal vibrissae, or carpal whiskers, and these leg whiskers are great aids for felines when hunting. When cats catch their prey and cover it with their paws, they can no longer see it but they can still feel it. The carpal whiskers can detect any tiny movements of the prey, helping the cat to know whether the prey is still alive and how much it is moving.
When scientists attached electrodes to cats’ nerves, they established that felines are good at detecting the direction and strength of the movement of objects they are holding. A big part of this could be attributed to the carpal whiskers on the legs. Unfortunately, cats are not able to measure openings with the carpal whiskers, since their main function is associated with hunting.
What are whiskers?
A cat’s whiskers are very important. They are sensory organs that specialize in tactile sensing and thus provide vital information. These thick hairs grow inside a sensory cell and their main purpose is to detect movement. They are highly sensitive and can detect even tiny air currents. They assist cats with hunting, navigation and measuring spaces.
Cats hunt and defend themselves even at night and despite limited vision, so they need to be able to navigate in the dark. Their whiskers provide the information they need to do this, acting as their radar system.
Whiskers are coarser and thicker than regular hair and do not cover the entire body. These are located above the eyes, on the chin, on the forelegs, near the ears and on the area above the upper lip. Felines have at least 12 whiskers arranged in four rows on each cheek. The whiskers are so sensitive because the follicles are packed with nerves and blood vessels.
Despite being called tactile hairs, whiskers do not actually feel anything; they just transmit information to sensory cells upon movement or object detection. When air or an object comes into contact with a whisker, it vibrates and stimulates the nerves in the hair follicle. These transmit information about the shape, size and speed of nearby objects to help cats navigate.
Benefits of whiskers for cats
They are body balancers.
At the end of each whisker is a special sensory organ called a proprioceptor. These organs transmit messages to the brain regarding the position of the limbs and the body. It enables cats to be aware of what each body part is doing. For instance, they assist cats to land on their feet.
They are radar sensors.
While a cat’s sense of smell and hearing are superior, their vision seems to be somewhat lacking. Felines find it difficult to focus on nearby objects. Thankfully, whiskers allow cats to “see” things nearby by sending information to the brain. When a cat approaches an object in her path, she stirs air currents that bounce back upon hitting solid objects. The whiskers detect vague vibrations due to air current changes, thus acting as radar detectors. Cats in the wild are alerted by their whiskers to the presence of potential enemies or prey, or the location of the pack. Similarly, domesticated cats are aided by their whiskers in locating their food bowl or toys at night. These radar detectors help cats to hunt at night without bumping into walls and other obstructions.
They communicate your cat’s emotions.
Whiskers can tell you a lot about your cat’s emotions. When cats are active, so are the whiskers, but if they are resting or at ease, the whiskers also relax. Happy or curious cats have elevated whiskers above the eyes, giving them a wide-eyed appearance. However, if they are threatened the whiskers become taut, and cats will flare them and direct them toward the supposed threat.
They protect cats from hurting their eyes and bodies.
Whiskers protect cats from hurting themselves. When specks of dust fall on the whiskers, cats will blink or shake their heads to remove the dust. If cats are outdoors, they are protected from long blades of grass since the whiskers prompt them to back up and avoid being poked in the eye.
Whiskers also protect cats from getting stuck, as they determine whether the cat can fit through a small space or passage.
Just as whiskers act as protectors for cats, they should also be protected. They are touch sensors and at least 40% of the brain’s sensory area aligns with body parts that have whiskers. They inhabit vital neurological estate in a cat’s system so they should be well cared for. Touch the whiskers gently when petting your cat. Avoid plucking or pulling them since this is painful for your cat, and do not ever cut them as it may decrease the cat’s spatial awareness and cause confusion.
Cats have superior senses of smell and hearing, but their sense of sight is not so perfect. Thankfully, they have whiskers that provide information to guide them with hunting, navigating and calculating distances. They also have whiskers on their legs, called carpal vibrissae, which help detect the movements of captured prey and ascertain whether or not it is still alive, since cats cannot focus on objects closer than a foot in front of them.
Image: istockphoto.com / Evelien Doosje