Can You Tell How Old a Cat Is by Their Whiskers?

"You're just jealous I don't have to shave every day."

"You're just jealous I don't have to shave every day."

Cat whiskers are spiffy, and not just because they guarantee a great fu manchu costume for your cat every Halloween. Whiskers allow your cat to perform agile acrobatics, correct for poor close-range eyesight and navigate tight spots. They can't, however, tell you much about your cat's age.

What Whiskers Are

Your cat's whiskers have little in common with the rest of his coat, let alone human hair. Whiskers are actually touch receptors called vibrissae and are rooted much deeper than fur. So, too, are their other vibrisae, which are on their cheeks, eyebrows, jaw and legs. These special hairs provide sensory information, kind of like touch, but, really more akin to radar. They even pick up subtle air currents.The whisker clusters around your cat's nose and upper lip -- with, on average, a dozen on each side -- are more prominent than his other vibrissae, but function the same.

What Whiskers Do

Cats have poor close-range vision. You could say they were far-sighted, but their vision functions differently enough from humans that the term's not really applicable. Their whiskers and other vibrissae help them gauge distances and assess their immediate surroundings. They help with balance and depth perception. They also indicate your cat's mood. When he's at rest, his whiskers are almost immobile; when he's scared, his whiskers bundle up and flatten against his face; and when he's excited, his whiskers point forward.

What Whiskers Don't Do

Whiskers don't tell you much about a cat's age. Whiskers grow and even shed throughout a cat's life, but they're not like facial hair. They don't keep growing and growing, ergo, the length of your cat's whiskers has nothing to do with how old he is. A cat's fur tends to grey as they age, though, and so, too, do his whiskers. It's not an exact process, however, and some cats grey younger than others. Most vets estimate a cat's age based on the wear on his teeth and the relative cloudiness of his eyes. Unless you know when he was born, it's hard to peg your cat's exact age.

Odds & Ends

Your cat's whiskers may not let you know much about his age, but they're vital to his well being. Cutting a cat's whiskers disorients and frightens hims. It's almost like cutting off your fingertips. Yes, broken or cut whiskers grow back, but that doesn't mean it's a pleasant process. It's best to leave your cat's whiskers alone. If your cat's demeanor suddenly changes and you notice some of his whiskers are missing, call your vet. The issue could be just about anything -- whisker or non-whisker related -- but it's better to be safe than sorry.

About the Author

Nicholas DeMarino is a journalist and former newspaper associate editor and reporter. His work has appeared in "The Arizona Republic," "The Billings Gazette," "San Antonio Current" and in other publications. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon.

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