Just like fingernails, it's perfectly natural for a kitten's whiskers to break or get damaged. Because they serve such a crucial purpose in your kitten's everyday functioning, though, whiskers that consistently break or fall out are problematic, and a good reason to see a vet.
What Whiskers Do
Whiskers serve two major functions for your kitten: Sensory perception and balance. Her whiskers are actually very sensitive, like supercharged fingertips, and she uses them to feel her way around her world. Because they stick out so far, she can use them to do things like gauge the size of a tight space or detect minute changes in her environment. They help her navigate in the dark, and like a tightrope walker's pole, they allow her to retain a superior sense of balance -- they're practically the source of your cat's superpowers.
Let 'Em Grow
While you may like to trim your own whiskers, you should never mess with your kitten's -- she needs them. Without her whiskers, her ability to get around is severely diminished, and her confidence will be crippled. She won't be able to jump accurately, and it can impede her balance to the point where she can't even stand up without tipping over. It would be like it someone took away your toes, tied your arms behind your back, blindfolded you and spun you around -- not a good way to get around.
Shedding and Re-Growing
You know you should never cut a kitten's whiskers, but that doesn't mean they won't get hurt on their own. It's 100 percent natural for whiskers to fall out and regrow -- they'll come back after a few weeks. She'll shed some whiskers for the first time when she's about 11 weeks old. And don't stress out too much if a few of them look broken or jagged, because kittens love to play rough. It's perfectly normal for her whiskers to take a bit of a licking when she's roughhousing with her littermates.
Signs of Illness
Sometimes whiskers get broken and fall out, and that's fine. But if her whiskers seem like they're always broken, drooping, splitting at the ends or shriveling, it's probably time to see a vet. In the case of a rapidly-growing kitten, she's likely not gaining weight as quickly as she should be, or even losing weight. Take her in for a checkup to make sure that she is in good health and getting the nutrition she needs so that she and her whiskers stay strong.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.