As a cat, I’ve often wondered the same thing about my whiskers. I asked my friend Jennifer Slovak about it. She’s an Assistant Professor of Small Animal Internal Medicine at Washington State University who knows a whole lot about whiskers.
Slovak said that the scientific term for whiskers is vibrissae. You can find vibrissae on a lot of different mammals. Slovak said that vibrissae also include eyebrows, eyelashes, and ear hair. Whiskers are some of the vibrissae that grow on the face and cheeks.
You can think of vibrissae as an additional sensory organ that helps us sense our environment. Some examples of sensory organs are your eyes, which let you see it’s raining outside, and your nose, which lets you smell that there is a pie in the oven. Yum. If you turned off the lights in your room, you would probably still be able to use your sense of touch to find your way around. Vibrissae let us do something similar.
For example, rats can push their heads into a space and use their vibrissae to tell if the rest of them will fit inside. Slovak said that for predator animals, like coyotes, cats, and foxes, vibrissae can also help them sense movements in the air and help them know when to strike their prey.
Slovak said that in addition to helping us sense the environment, vibrissae can help us express our feelings. Humans might draw their eyebrows in closer together when frowning or to show they are unhappy or in pain. When Slovak works with animals in her office, she often looks at their vibrissae to determine their anxiety or pain level.
She did an interesting study last summer. She observed 40 cats and studied what kind of dishes they like to use when eating. Overall, the cats preferred flat and shallow, whisker-friendly dishes. When cats eat food out of a bowl, their vibrissae can be stimulated or stressed. When they use a flat dish, it can make eating more comfortable because their vibrissae may not touch the sides of the plate.
This might also help explain why some cats do not like it when you pat their head. They might be really sensitive and it could be stressful for them.
Although human vibrissae are not as long or sensitive, your eyelashes can help you detect things that are close to your eyes. Your eyebrows can show your feelings of anger and happiness. As for me, my vibrissae help me navigate the world. I sense some more exciting questions coming this way.
Lee Jiwon (and Dr. Universe)
Lee Jiwon, a student in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, contributed this article. Student science writers work with Dr. Universe to explore science communication, while helping inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.