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Now We Know Why Cats Really Have Whiskers

Julie Sprankles is a freelance writer living in the storied city of Charleston, SC. When she isn't slinging sass for SheKnows, she enjoys watching campy SyFy creature features (Pirahnaconda, anyone?), trolling the internet for dance work...

If you've ever wondered what purpose your cat's whiskers serve, you came to the right place

My Grandma Hazel had a cat named Molly, whom she adored. In fact, it's probably safe to say she was obsessed with Molly. So when Molly started stumbling around and acting disoriented, my grandma understandably proceeded to panic and take her BFF (best feline friend, natch) straight to the vet.

Fortunately, it was not a worst-case scenario — i.e., some rare and aggressive cancer — that was causing Molly's problems. Rather, the root of the issue was something none of us expected: her whiskers.

Sure, we all knew they didn't simply exist for decoration. But to be honest, we hadn't really ever paused to ask, "Why do cats have whiskers?" Well, in case you're as curious as a cat about this query, here's the 411 on your feline's facial hair.

For starters, cats' whiskers, or vibrissae, are extremely sensitive sensory tools. According to Live Science, these tactile hairs are jam-packed with nerves, which help make cats aware of their surroundings.

To put it in context, it's kind of like having fingers growing out of your face — they allow you to size up objects, people and places simply through touch, even at night. Since a cat's whiskers are roughly as long the cat is wide, cats often use their whiskers to gauge whether or not they can squeeze into a space.

More: It's Time to Stop Scaring Your Cat With Cucumbers

Another way cats use their whiskers? When hunting (or when trying to avoid being hunted). Because cats' whiskers are so sensitive, they can detect changes in air currents. This helps them both pinpoint prey and avoid approaching potential predators.

Whiskers are also an excellent barometer for your cat's moods. That's right; your feline friend might be trying to tell you something, and you're simply not picking up the visual clues. This includes taut whiskers when your cat feels threatened, relaxed whiskers when your cat is feeling calm and forward-pushed whiskers when your cat is excited or alert.

So what did whiskers have to do with the condition of my grandma's cat? Upon further inspection, the veterinarian discovered that Molly had somehow singed the whiskers off one side of her face. Because cat whiskers are so sensitive, damaged whiskers can wreak havoc on your pet's nervous system. The cat will not be able to receive the navigation signals it normally receives from its whiskers, which can lead to everything from disorientation to stumbling and more. Furthermore, it can cause your cat pain to lose its whiskers, so it's best to practice a hands-off approach.

More: What's a Healthy Weight for Cats? The Numbers Probably Aren't What You Think

Besides, why would you ever want to mess with your cat's built-in sensory system anyway? It's what he or she uses to glean information about the world around them. And hey, that includes you! You can thank your cat's whiskers for helping to interpret you favorably and helping your cat to feel safe enough around you to form your formidable bond.

This post was sponsored by Blue Buffalo.

If you've ever wondered what purpose your cat's whiskers serve, you came to the right place
Image: Liz Smith/SheKnows
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