Cats are superheroes complete with uniquely feline super powers. One of their super powers is nonverbal communication. Their body language is so subtle that it almost seems telepathic. The cat’s head is the command center, comprising the communication triad of the eyes, ears, and whiskers.
Holy Cat Whiskers!
Whiskers, or “vibrissae,” are so vital to a cat that they are the first hairs to develop in the womb. They are longer and thicker than normal hairs and are embedded three times deeper into the skin, where each whisker follicle attaches to a nerve bundle. The end of each whisker is tipped with a sensory receptor that communicates vibrations and touch to the brain. That makes whiskers super-sensitive tactile organs capable of detecting the slightest movement, including air currents, transmitting complex information about prey, and serving as a measuring device and onboard GPS.
Cats have three sets of facial whiskers: the eyebrows (superciliary), chin whiskers (mandibular), and the longest set, the muzzle whiskers (mystacial). A cat has 12 mystacial whiskers neatly arranged in four rows on each side of the muzzle. The two upper rows move independently, forward and backward, of the two lower rows. It is this movement that allows whiskers to communicate a cat’s mood. Here’s what to look for.
Neutral, friendly. In a happy, contented, or relaxed cat, whiskers are in a neutral position slightly to the side.
Interested, perked. When a cat’s interest is engaged, whiskers pull forward and fan out, and the mouth is closed with loose lips. The muzzle appears slightly plumped up. Whiskers also fan out and move forward when a cat is hunting, whether in the wild or in your living room.
Fearful, anxious, or stressed. As fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) increase, whiskers begin to move slightly back. If FAS escalates, whiskers pull back further as ears move further to the side. Whiskers and ears are a dynamic duo in cat body language.
Aggression. Whiskers, and their sidekicks, the ears, clue us in on a cat’s aggression. Heed the warning. Whiskers pulled back tightly to the face signal aggression. In the case of offensive aggression, whiskers and ears point forward. For a full read, be sure to notice the ears, also likely pulled back, as well as eyes, body, and tail position.
Pain. Cats wear a stoic mask to conceal pain. The facial expression of a cat in pain shows physical changes in increased nose, cheek, and muzzle flattening while whiskers move from sideways to forward. The face appears tense. Call your veterinarian if you think your cat may be in pain.
Never cut a cat’s whiskers. Cutting a cat’s whiskers is this superhero’s kryptonite. It’s not only painful, it impairs their ability to hunt and navigate their environment and causes them to become disoriented and fearful.
Don’t pull on a cat’s whiskers either–that’s like tugging on Superman’s cape.
When you learn to recognize and understand what’s being communicated by whisker placement and other body language, your cat may think you’re a superhero too!
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Published October 8, 2018