What does a cat’s whiskers do?
A cat’s whiskers are what are known as “specialized sensory hairs.” Their extreme sensitivity can register very small changes in air pressure, enabling the kitty to avoid objects while moving around in the dark. It’s also thought that they may also be used to establish the position of prey and help locate the exact position for the killing bite. This idea is somewhat borne out by the fact that cheetahs, who mainly hunt by day, have less developed whiskers than many other “night hunting” cats.
Whiskers are grouped in three specific locations on the cats head. The Supercilary whiskers are positioned above the eyes, the Genal whiskers to the rear of the cats cheek area, and the Mystacial whiskers (which are the longest and most prominent) are carried either side of the cats muzzle
The Mystacial whiskers are primarily used as an alternative sensing device when the eyes are no longer effective (i.e. in the dark). It’s now though that there’s a link between visual and other sensory input in the cat. Indeed, research indicates a degree of parallel processing takes place within the cat’s brain. This can be demonstrated by simply touching the end of the whiskers – the automatic response is for the cat to blink.
It’s also thought that whiskers are used a a sort of “magic sensing rod,” enabling kitty to test their ability to fit through small places and get around obstacles.
Cats are able to change the position of their whiskers depending on what they are doing – at rest the whiskers are elongated, at 90% to the head, while when walking they are tilted forward to aid their sensing ability. They can also indicate mood. A cat walking with whiskers pointed only slightly forward and down is feeling attentive yet calm.