Cats' whiskers are there for a purpose: they navigate the animal, indicate their mood and help them sense the impending danger, notes a researcher from University of Melbourne's U-Vet Veterinary Hospital (UMUVH).
A dozen of whiskers are found arranged in four neat rows on the cheeks of cats and a few on their eyebrows, chin, wrists and front paws. Dr. Leonie Richards, head of general practice from UMUVH said that though the whiskers are on different sites they serve the same purpose. They help the cats in sensing as well as give them an understanding on where they are located spatially.
The whiskers that are made up of keratin do not have any nerves and therefore they don't have any "feel" as such. However, the point where the whiskers end up on the animal's body is packed with nerve fibers and fed with a rich supply of blood making the whisker a good "sensory organ," added the researcher.
Whiskers that are scientifically called as vibrissae, meaning "vibrate" in Latin, are capable of sensing airflow, touch and vibration. They are helpful for the animal in judging if a particular space is sufficient enough to pass through. The whiskers also guide cats in the dark to sense the obstacles on the way just like fingers as touch receptors for humans.
The whiskers are also used to detect the airflow in the dark to find if they are close to a wall or sort. On the other hand, when the prey is caught, the whiskers on the back of the paw help the cats sense where the food is present in the feet as the animal is naturally short-sighted.
"With a normal cat the whiskers will span out as far as their body can squeeze through," said Richards, as reported by Science Daily via the University of Melbourne. "If it's a really obese cat then they're not as useful. That's another reason to keep your cat slim -- so they don't get stuck!"
If the whiskers are cut, the cats could feel disoriented because it might become harder for them to sense and access the surroundings. However, the whiskers grow back again in months once cut and they are also sometimes shed naturally. Whiskers also indicate the mood of the cat: droopy and relaxed whiskers indicate that the cat is calm and happy.
"If the whiskers are pinned back up against its face it can mean they're quite fearful," said, Richards. "Straight forward can mean they're angry."