Fluffy has been acting weird lately, especially around his food. You cannot pin it on something, you just know that there is something wrong.
The answer might be hiding in plain sight, on his whiskers, to be exact.
Your cat might be suffering from a condition known as whisker fatigue which can cause behavioral changes in felines.
What is whisker fatigue?
Whisker fatigue is basically over-stimulation of the sensory system in the whiskers.
Although cats can turn on and off the ability of their whiskers to pick up sensory information, some functions of the receptors in the whiskers are automatic and involuntary.
In the wild, the involuntary action of these receptors can help a cat survive and escape threats. But in the common home, the inability to shut off information can lead to whisker fatigue and stress in cats.
It does not take much to trigger these receptors. Even the smallest and most ordinary movements like drinking from a water bowl transmits information to your cat’s brain and nervous system. While this is not necessarily bad, too much information sent rapidly to the brain can leave your cat overwhelmed. This is what causes whisker fatigue. However, fatigue might be a misnomer.
According to experts, whisker stress is the more accurate name for the condition because there is no physical fatigue or soreness involved.
Overstimulation can lead to whisker fatigue
Because of your cat’s inability to shut off the barrage of information sent to his brain, your pet can succumb to whisker fatigue. Even ordinary things can cause your cat to suffer whisker fatigue.
One of the leading causes of whisker fatigue is eating or drinking from food or water bowls that are too small for your cat. When a bowl is too small for your cat, his whiskers can inadvertently touch the sides of the bowl.
A cat suffering from whisker fatigue can act weird around food. For example, your cat may seem hungry but when you place his food in front of him, he will just paw at it. Some cats with whisker fatigue may show aggression or take food from the bowl and eat off the floor.
Unfortunately, these signs are also indicative of other health problems like dental issues, gastrointestinal disorders, or even tumors. As such, if you notice these signs, you need to bring your cat to the vet to find the underlying cause.
Take note that whisker fatigue is not a disorder or disease. As such, there is no actual cure for it. However, whisker fatigue can put your cat in a sustained state of stress which can affect his health and wellbeing.
Preventing whisker fatigue
The easiest way to prevent whisker fatigue is to feed your cat using a food bowl that is wide enough to ensure that whiskers do not touch its sides.
As for his drinking bowl, you might want to consider investing in a fountain. Apart from preventing whisker fatigue, a water fountain can entice your cat to drink more water. Cats that do not drink enough water can be enticed to drink more when given moving water.
Under no circumstance should you trim your cat’s whiskers. This will only cause disorientation and stress in your pet. Remember, your cat uses his whiskers to navigate his environment.
Whisker fatigue is stressful for cats
Although whisker fatigue is not a real disease or disorder, you should do your best to prevent your cat from succumbing to it.
Whisker fatigue can put your cat into an extended state of stress which does not only undermine his quality of life. More importantly, when left unchecked, this prolonged stress can adversely affect his health.
Why do cats have whiskers?
Whiskers are not just facial adornments on animals, including cats. Furthermore, whiskers are not just specialized hairs.
Whiskers, also known as vibrissae, are long, stiff hairs that grow deeper than normal fur. Whiskers are embedded deep into a cat’s face and are connected to muscles and nerves.
One of the key functions of whiskers is to give a cat information about his surroundings thus enhancing his ability to evaluate his environment and react accordingly, especially when it comes to dealing with perceived threats, real or otherwise.
Most people think that cats have whiskers on their noses and upper lips. However, felines also have whiskers on their eyes, jaws, and even the back of their front legs.
Each whisker contains a proprioceptor which is a type of sensory organ. Proprioceptors send signals to the brain and the other components of the nervous system. Through their whiskers, cats navigate and maneuver their way around their surroundings with uncanny grace and athleticism.
Have you ever marveled at a cat’s ability to get out of tight spots? A lot of that has to do with his whiskers. A cat’s whiskers give him the unique ability to gain awareness of the position of each of his body parts in a space. That ability is complemented by a quick reaction.
Furthermore, whiskers help felines judge distance. That is why they almost always jump from one spot to another with great precision.
Whiskers can also give you a clue to your cat’s moods. If you look at your pet when he is resting, you will notice that the whiskers do not move. Now, look at his whiskers during playtime. You will see that the whiskers are positioned forward, like a satellite dish ready to receive information. And just like the hairs on his back, your cat’s whiskers can also move forward when he is scared.
Image: istockphoto.com / Firn