What Happens if a Cat’s Whiskers Are Damaged or Clipped

Today I found out what happens if a cat’s whiskers are damaged or clipped.

It turns out, cat’s whiskers are an essential sensory mechanism. Damage a cat’s whiskers and it will cause them not only discomfort, but also to become confused and disorientated, among other negative side effects.

Whiskers themselves are nothing more than a type of thick/long hair.  The importance of whiskers lies in the fact that they are deeply rooted in follicles which are surrounded by a muscle tissue that is very rich in nerves and sensory cells. These nerve cells in the roots are then connected to a special area of the cat’s brain.

While whiskers serve many functions, the main function of whiskers is to work as a type of environmental scanning system. Interestingly enough, cats don’t actually need to touch the objects with their whiskers to detect the object.  The nerves at the base of the whiskers are actually sensitive enough to be able to pick up even small air movements which vibrate the whiskers.  They are so sensitive, in fact, that cats can even pick up air movements indoors, such as air flowing around furniture, which lets the cat know there is an object there, even when it is pitch dark.  This is essential for cats because they are far sighted and have trouble seeing things clearly close up.  Being nocturnal in nature, this also helps them “see” more clearly at night while they hunt.

Understanding the basic function of cat’s whiskers, it’s not surprising how distressing it would be for a cat to lose their whiskers or have them damaged. Research has shown that cats without whiskers have trouble estimate the size of openings and can easily get stuck. Also, due to the fact that whiskers are important to a cat’s equilibrium, without them, they have trouble walking straight and have difficulty running.  They also tend to get disoriented and fall. Interestingly, experiments done with cats with whiskers cut short also show that they struggle to judge distances accurately and so will often misjudge jumping distances as well as occasionally run into things.

Luckily for cats, even should someone be so cruel as to clip their whiskers or if their whiskers are otherwise damaged in a fight or the like, as with other types of hair, whiskers will ultimately re-grow as long as the follicle itself isn’t damaged beyond the body’s ability to repair.

Bonus Facts:

  • Interestingly, there is also some evidence to suggest that whiskers aid somehow in helping cats detecting odors.
  • Like human finger prints, every cat’s whisker pattern is unique.
  • In addition to the obvious whiskers in horizontal rows on the ‘whisker pad’ of their cheeks, there are also whiskers between the corner of a cat’s mouth and the outer corner of the nose, on the chin, and the eyebrows, and on the back of the front legs.
  • The scientific name for a cat’s whiskers is ‘vibrissae’ which hints at their sensitivity to vibrations in air currents.
  • The breed of cat called the ‘Sphinx’ often has little to no whiskers.
  • As you might have guessed, blind cats rely almost solely on their whiskers to navigate.
  • When a cat is angry or defensive, the whiskers will be pulled back. When the cat is happy, curious or content, the whiskers will be more relaxed and pushed forward.
  • Cats don’t have a true collar bone, which allows them to twist their way through very narrow openings.
  • ‘To be the cat’s whiskers’ is a British idiom meaning ‘to be better than everyone else’.
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36 comments

  • Hi Julia, Did you cut and paste this article from somewhere? The egregious misuse of apostrophes (in several ways) doesn’t seen like the work of someone with a doctorate. Weird.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Jane: Nope, but it should be noted that Julia speaks a ridiculous number of languages fluently (I’m personally a little jealous of how many countries she’s lived in and traveled too as well) ;-) and English was not her first. Technically it’s my job to check for typos and other such mistakes, so my bad. ;-)

  • Wow, my cat has short whiskers because he would go in a little box we bought him… poor guy

  • @ Jane
    You’re just jealous of her knowledge…
    You should be ashamed of your stupid comment.
    You should apologize and request the removal of your stupid comment.
    It had nothing to do with the subject or topic.
    You should learn to show respect and consideration to others!!!
    SHAME ON YOU!!!

  • im gunna cut my cats whiskers off and see what happens lol ;)

  • Dan,
    Chill out, you’re being a douche bag.
    You’re not the internet police, stop wishing you were. Go back to living in your mom’s basement, troll.

  • This article could really help explain to my 19 year old brother why our dad screamed at him and told him his friends can’t come over anymore after cutting off my cats whiskers. He replied “So what? They grow back.” Idiot.

  • Thank you for your info – my four year old daughter not only cut her hair up to her shoulders but also my gorgeous ragdolls whiskers! Now to find the second pair of scissors she has hidden on me & put them up high…..

  • well i cut off my moms cats whiskers and she wanted me to look up this and its really interesting

  • Why would anyone feel the need to cut off their cat’s whiskers in the first place?

    • actually I was thinking about it, so I thought I’d look it up first. My cat has damaged his eye and fluid has been running out (he’s been to the vet and gotten drops) so the fluid has “glued” some of his “eyebrow”-whiskers to his eye.. he won’t wash it because his eye hurt so I was thinking about cutting them of to make sure they didn’t cause more pain but now I’m thinking I shouldn’t…

      what do you guys think is worse? Having the whiskers stuck to his eyelid or having the tips of them cut off?

  • For those who would like to cut off a cat’s whiskers…….try cutting your grand pappy’s pubic hair first…..that might be more entertaining and plus he has no use for them pubes anyway !!

  • She was not being rude…..but I think its not right to alter animals to our satisfaction.
    I grew up in Nigeria and we had a pet Lion and we kept him just the way nature made him

    • Lol…no offense intended whatsoever, but you’re a few millennia too late. All dogs for example came from from breed and we’re inter-bred to create the many dog species we see today to create dogs for certain purposes to humans. As long as ppl treat the domesticated animals with the same care as they would they’re own child or family member, we should not worry but rather embrace the wonderful achievements made by dog breeding techniques which have now gotten down to a perfect science. Love your pets as you love yourself and life will be much more satisfying and full of smiles…Both for you and your pet companion!

  • Ah phew, I was worried for a sec, my cat walked way to close to a candle and now he has curly whiskers on one side. he looked a bit dumbfounded, but should be alright. thnx for the info

  • We adopted a stray that wondered into our yard. She has very short whiskers, so we assumed that some idiot had cut them off. We figured they would eventually grow back, but they did not. She wound up having kittens and two of them had identical whiskers, causing us now to assume that this is something in her DNA. I came across this article when I googled what breed of cat has short whiskers. Maybe she has some Sphinks in her. Anyone have any ideas?

  • I remove all my cat whiskers with a tweezers. It looks much better. Whiskers is ugly and disgusting. :D

    • You’re disgusting.

    • I hope you’re joking although that is still nothing to joke about! Pain is pain, that would be like pulling your nails off of each of your fingers, please stop torturing innocent animals because you don’t think it looks good. Be kind to them or DON’T OWN THEM!!!!!!!

    • What the actual hell is wrong with you? I’d think it’s more like plucking your pubes one by one, so why not do that, because those are probably disgusting, too!

    • May I suggest you try removing your pubic hairs with tweezers, no doubt thats ugly too

  • We just gave my persian cat a shower and then my stupid big sister gave him a trim and she even like trimmed the cats whiskers. Im really pissed off because i told her: “not the whiskers!” Then she just trimmed them half. Im really worried for my cat because even though its trimmed only i still dont feel good about that he might not get to balance properly. :(

  • Thank you for the info. It’s pretty much what I told my 7 year old son, when I saw our cat’s whiskers cut very short. He confessed that he did it, but obviously had no idea that it was such an issue. Shame, needless to say, he’s learnt a huge lesson and feels horrible. I have a question, though. We recently noticed that her third eye lids don’t open up properly when her eyes are open. They cover about quarter of her eyes. It worries me. Could that have anything to do with her whiskers being cut? I saw that the other causes are diarrhea, worms or virus. Will have to take her to the vet soon. But I’m curious to know if it could be a result of the whiskers.

  • Patricia, While it probably is genetic it’s not likely to be from the sphinx, the gene that causes them to be hairless also makes the whiskers brittle so they break off they also have poorly rooted teeth for the same reason

  • Research has shown that cats without whiskers have trouble estimate the size of openings and can easily get stuck.

    Does anyone have a source on this research, please? I’m aware of the claim that this is a primary function of the cat’s whiskers, but it seems dubious to me for several reasons:

    a) Surely cats evolved their whiskers in natural environments where they would mainly be squeezing through vegetation, etc (ie where they would not be likely to get stuck anyway).

    b) I’ve certainly not observed my own cats avoiding spaces where their whiskers touch the sides – and in fact one cat I had died precisely because it got stuck in a narrow top-opening window.

    c) Many animals have whiskers that serve important sensory functions, but the ‘natural ruler’ claim seems to be made only about cats. It feels a bit like it’s based on a somewhat arbitrary correlation – like the claim that our nostrils are the size they are so that we can pick them.

    d) It has that ‘everyone knows’ ring to it, which makes me naturally suspicious!

    I’ve been trying to verify the claim (without actually cutting off any cat’s whiskers!), but while it is almost universally repeated, this is the first time I’ve seen a reference to its being verified by research. I’d be really interested to hear more about that!

    If anyone can help, I’d be grateful! Thanks.

  • @daniela you are so mean and cruel! That hurts them u kno!!! Shame on u! You wouldn’t like it if ripped out all of your hair or waxed your legs would you!? These things hurt cats guys! So stop!!!!

  • My cat got into a fight with a cat that was either dropped off in our area or it happened to stray onto our property a few weeks back and he ended up with a bad bite on his cheek and near the front of his ear. He wouldn’t let me near him for a whole week the poor baby but finally came back to me. I brought my cat to the vet and they had to shave the wounded area to clean it and they clipped his whiskers back some. I was concerned about his whiskers not growing back but glad to see they can. He is doing wonderful now. I love my sweet cats!

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