Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?


Vibrissae. It’s a funny, fancy-sounding word, but it’s just the technical term for something that most pet owners are familiar with: whiskers.

Those with cats and dogs may have had funny or annoying experiences with their pet’s whiskers – having them drip water all over the floor, or getting food all over them, or tickling your face.

why dogs have whiskers

Whiskers are found in many mammals, such as rabbits, rats, and foxes, and of course, our dear feline friends. But you may find yourself asking, why do dogs have whiskers?

Whisker Anatomy

Whiskers are, for the most part, a special type of hair. They’re twice as coarse and thick as regular dog hair. They’re also more rigid and embedded three times deeper in the skin.

Each whisker is filled with nerves and blood vessels, which aid your pet in movement and tactile sensation. That’s why pets can ‘feel’ through their whiskers, just like a human being can with their fingers.

Whiskers don’t have pain receptors, however. Like other types of hair, whiskers also regularly grow, fall out, and grow right back.

While the anatomy of a whisker is almost identical between cats and dogs, there are also some differences in the way they grow.

Unlike cats, dog whiskers don’t have a set number growing around their nose. Your dog may have few whiskers, and there are some which have none at all!

There doesn’t seem to be a correlation between dog breeds and what you can expect from their whiskers. Some will have numerous, short whiskers, while other dogs may have very long but very few strands.

Cat whiskers are generally more organized, with there often being twelve whiskers in total, divided between each cheek in four rows.

Cat whiskers also grow on places other than their cheeks, such as on their eyebrows, under their chin (which amusingly look like moustaches), and behind their wrists.

But with all these facts considered, why do dogs and cats have whiskers?

why do dogs and cats have whiskers

Why Do Dogs and Cats Have Whiskers?

The reason behind why dogs have whiskers mainly concerns their senses.

Alongside their feline counterparts, dogs use whiskers to explore the world, since the hairs aid in their tactile sense (their sense of touch), which helps them understand where they are in a physical space.

Overall, dogs are small animals in a large world, and they need all the help they can get!

Whiskers aren’t just for tactile sensations, however, and can be used for communication, environmental monitoring, and displays of aggression.

While there are many similarities between the use of whiskers in cats and dogs, there are also quite a few differences.

Cat Whiskers

Cat whiskers are used for tactile sensation, but not as much as dogs. In cats, their whiskers are an aid to their already superior sense of sight, especially in the dark.

Like dogs, cats can’t see details very well and are terrible at distinguishing one color from the next. However, they are much better than dogs at seeing in the dark. Because of their light-sensitive eyes, cats need roughly seven times less light than human beings to see.

Dim lighting for our feline friends is just like being in a sun-lit room for the rest of us humans. Because cats are smaller and easily overpowered by larger animals (like dogs), cats mainly use their whiskers in low light to avoid predators.

When cats can’t avoid predators, however, whiskers can also be used as a display of aggression, to intimidate their predators into changing their minds and walking away.

Cats display aggression by pulling their whiskers away from their face to rigidly point upwards. On the other hand, whiskers that are relaxed and are not pulled back from the face mean a calm, contented cat.

Cats also use their whiskers to ensure they can fit into a space, using them as a kind of measuring stick. All that agility and flexibility wouldn’t do so well for an animal if they routinely get stuck, after all!

Lastly, cats use whiskers to determine their environment even if it doesn’t touch them physically. For example, they would know that they’re in a different room by determining a change in air currents.

why do dogs and cats have whiskers

Dog Whiskers

While dogs don’t perform as well as cats in low-light, they still have a far superior sense of smell. This is generally used to detect food, although dogs nowadays don’t use it as much as their ancestors did.

Their sense of smell also goes hand in hand with their whiskers, allowing them to better understand the textures of what they’re smelling before they taste it.

Just like cats, dogs mainly use their whiskers to ensure they don’t get stuck, by allowing them to sense the true breadth of an opening.

This is also especially important for dogs trained to flush out animals from underground, like terrier breeds.

Caring for Whiskers

As a pet owner, you may be tempted to trim your pet’s whiskers, whether for aesthetic purposes or because it just tickles too much.

Vets often advise against this. As whiskers don’t have pain receptors, it wouldn’t hurt your pet, but it may inhibit their spatial awareness. As a result, they will be disoriented, which may lead to harm and injury.

Here’s a video explaining more details on why dogs have whiskers.

Do you know any other reasons why dogs have whiskers?

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