If Our Pets Could Talk
By Jackie Kellum
Does your pet have ‘whisker stress?’ Yes, there is such a thing.
Whiskers serve a purpose for both cats and dogs. Whiskers are not like hair as they are thicker at the base and narrow toward the end and are three times deeper than hair follicles. They are located generally around the nose, eyes and under the chin, on the forelegs, near the ears, and they are in place at birth. The placement of dog whiskers tends to vary from one individual to another in an irregular and unpredictable manner. Whiskers follicles are full of blood vessels and nerves.
Human’s sense of touch is in their fingers, while cats and dogs touch with their whiskers. They can sense distance, space and feel vibrations, much like antennas on insects. This is why if your pet is wearing a ‘cone’ after surgery it may act disoriented, as he cannot ‘see’ as well without use of his whiskers. These ‘tactile hairs,’ do not feel anything, they transmit information to sensory cells when they detect objects or movement. If air moves against them or an object touches the whisker, it stimulates the hair follicle nerves. The nerves are complex and can detect the shape, size and speed of near-by objects. When your pet is resting, so are his whiskers; when he is alert, they are too. A happy-curious pet will elevate the whiskers above his eyes, giving a wide-eyed alert expression. If the pet feels threatened he will flair the whiskers on the muzzle area and direct them toward the perceived threat.
The theory of ‘whisker stress’ sounds reasonable if you are constantly touching a highly sensitive spot anywhere on the body. This fulltime alert system can fatigue the area, and in some cases, even cause stress. Both dogs and cats utilize their whiskers in a similar way, but dogs use their whiskers in a less pronounced way.
Dogs and cats with reduced vision are especially dependent on their whiskers. Dogs are known for their great sense of smell and hearing. However, canine vision is better at a distance and can have difficulty focusing on objects up close. The use of whiskers helps them “see” things that lie right under their noses by constantly sending information to their brain. As a dog approaches something in his path, he stirs up air currents that bounce back when they hit solid objects. Whiskers detect very faint vibrations caused by these changes in air currents and act like radar detectors. When a dog approaches a narrow space, his whiskers help him determine if he can fit through the space. When at the groomer, be sure to mention that you do not want your dog’s whiskers touched, because this may decrease his special awareness and confuse him.
No one has done a study on ‘whisker fatigue’ but it has been observed and reported more by cat owners than dog owners. These are signs that your cat may be experiencing ‘whisker fatigue’: refusal to eat or drink from their usual dishes, pacing in front of the food bowls and meowing like something is wrong or pawing at their food trying to pull it from the bowl and put it on the floor to eat. If you observe this, a possible solution: just change your cat’s food and water bowls to a wider flatter bowl with plenty of space for the whiskers on both sides of their face so their whiskers do not touch both sides of the bowl. Because issues with eating can also be signs of disease or other health problems, always rule these out by taking your cat to the Vet.
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