Why do dogs have whiskers?
Cats are the animals that are most commonly known for having whiskers. Even fish that have whisker-like extensions are aptly named catfish. But if you looked closely at any dog’s snout, you’ll find the same whiskers that cats have. Why is this?
Why do cats have whiskers?
Before we dive into why dogs have whiskers, it’s important to break down the reason why cats and dogs even have them in the first place. Whiskers aren’t just strands of hair that stick out longer than others. They serve a very important purpose, and their use has helped both species survive in the wild for thousands of years.
You see, whiskers are basically sensory tools. Just like how our skin gives us the sensory reaction of feeling, and our tongue the reaction of taste, the whiskers of cats and dogs help the cat move around their daily business.
How does this work, exactly? Well, whiskers are, firstly, more sensitive than you think. Cats can easily detect movement through their whiskers, and even the slightest of changes in the position of their whiskers gets picked up by them. So if a slight breeze passes by them, their whiskers will be the first to know.
But it doesn’t stop there – whiskers aren’t just fancy wind detectors. They can actually detect movement, too. When an animal or object passes by, they move the air around them. This type of air varies from species to species, and whiskers can tell the very minute differences between them. The whiskers vibrate to the movement of the wind to obtain information, which is why they are named scientifically as “vibrissae”.
Another interesting fact about whiskers in cats – did you know they’re used to keep them upright? When you see the light and small shape of whiskers, the last purpose you’d think they’d have would be to provide balance. But in truth, these little whiskers are important for letting these fellas land on their paws.
The way cats accomplish this is by using what’s known as proprioceptors. Proprioceptors are found on the ends of whiskers, and it essentially tells the body the relative position of the cat in terms of gravity.
If this sounds like a foreign concept to you, then here’s a little analogy. We humans have something called endolymph in our bodies. Endolymph is a liquid that’s found in our semicircular canals in our head and is what lets our brain know which way is up. Since liquids behave in gravity so well, the brain can detect when the endolymph moves around and calculates our relative position based on this information.
Whiskers work in a similar manner. The proprioceptors in the whiskers can tell when the cat is upright or upside down. If you’ve ever wondered how cats always managed to land on their feet, here’s part of the reason why.
Why do dogs have whiskers?
So, we know that cats use whiskers for movement. But what about dogs? Turns out, they function pretty much exactly the same in this sense. Dogs are primarily known for their superior sense of smell, but their whiskers are also vital for obtaining information in their environment. The combination of both their noses and whiskers has made them a formidable animal for so long.
And because whiskers provide plenty of information, dogs use them to cover up one of their sensory weaknesses – their sight. Dogs have incredibly good hearing and smell, but their eyes are not so well-suited for everyday life. Their vision is great when it looks at objects at a distance, but any objects that get too close start to become blurry for them. A likely explanation for this is that in the wild if a dog or wolf is close enough to its prey to be blurry, it’s likely already dead, so there isn’t much use for them at that distance.
And since dogs can’t get prescription glasses or laser eye surgery like us humans, they make do with other sensory receptors, and whiskers do the job just fine. While whiskers can detect faint movements in the air from a distance, they’re most effective when up close. Just like how we can hear best when we’re right next to something, whiskers can obtain the most information when they’re as close to the target as possible.
Because of this short-range coverage, whiskers become one of the primary ways for dogs to sense objects near them. At a distance, they may rely on their eyes, ears, and nose, but once they get up close and personal, they make use of their whiskers instead. Of course, that doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t rely on vision at all – they still need to see to make out the shape of their environment – they just can’t see the fine details we’re so used to seeing up close.
But, like with many other body parts, whiskers serve more than just one function. Whiskers are not only used for obtaining information but for communication. In a sense, they’re just like tails – they move differently depending on the current mood and emotion of the dog.
For example, if they’re excited, dogs will not only wag their tails but also have their whiskers perk up. It’s subtle, as whiskers are hard to see without really focusing on them, but you’ll notice the change if you’re aware of it. Another example would be a dog’s reaction to threats. In these fight-or-flight situations, whiskers point forward toward their target and can be seen as a way to provoke it. It’s like how a frilled lizard opens up its frills like a fan when it feels threatened.
Whiskers are curious little appendages that serve a lot more purposes than you think. They’re incredibly important for both cats and dogs, as they’re vital for obtaining information. So if you have a dog or cat yourself at home, be sure to take care of their whiskers. Don’t get them removed or cut, and try to prevent them from getting damaged. Dogs see the world in more ways than one, and whiskers are a prime example of this.