Vibrissae is the scientific term for whiskers. Most whisker-sporting animals hunt or feed in low visibility conditions, offering a clue as to their purpose. Every cat whisperer should know that these long, flexible hair follicles can sense movement, express your kitty's curiosity and help her interpret her surroundings.
Specialized Hair Follicles
More than just cuteness enhancers, vibrissae are specialized sensory organs that are highly sensitive to movement and wind currents. These extra thick and strong hairs are rich in blood and nerve supply and connected to muscle fibers, and some can be moved voluntarily. Your cat has whiskers above her eyes, on the back of her cheeks, around her muzzle and on the backs of her front legs.
Whiskers take in information from your cat’s environment and pass it along to her. For instance, a cat’s whiskers are about as wide as her body, allowing her to gauge whether she can fit through an opening. The vibrissae on the back of her legs – called carpal-ulnar – are most sensitive to movement away from the body and help her detect if that mouse is attempting to escape. Cats who have lost their sight move their muzzle whiskers permanently forward to assist in negotiating their environment.
Above your cat’s eyes are a set of whiskers technically known as the supra-orbitals. These serve a protective function for the cat. Imagine your little hunter stalking prey at night through thick brush – if these whiskers come into contact with a branch or some type of debris, they trigger the cat to shut her eyes, thus avoiding injury.
Cleo can move the vibrissae around her muzzle – called mystacials – voluntarily to indicate her mood. Forward-facing whiskers are a sign of curiosity and a positive mindset, while backward-facing whiskers indicate a defensive position and might mean she’s mad and about to become aggressive. These are just one more means by which she communicates what’s going on inside her head.
Leslie Darling has been a writer since 2003, writing regularly for "Mississippi Magazine" and "South Mississippi Living," specializing in food and wine, animals and pets, and all things Southern. She is a graduate of the University of New Orleans.