A cat’s whiskers — located above his eyes and under his chin as well as on the sides of his face — are embedded in bundles of nerves. The slightest change in air currents causes his whiskers to move, providing kitty with sophisticated information about his surroundings, says veterinarian Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts. “They are exquisitely sensitive,” he says.
While whisker damage — from a candle flame, for example, or from being scissored off by a neighbor’s preschooler — is hardly a life-threatening event, it can be upsetting and sometimes very painful. Without whiskers, your cat may have trouble maneuvering through tight spaces or judging distances when hunting at night.
Dogs also have whiskers, of course, but they depend on them far less than cats do, Dr. Dodman says.
If your pet’s whiskers have been inadvertently trimmed, here’s what vets recommend.
Keep him indoors
Since cats depend on their whiskers for navigation, any damage could cause them to misjudge distances or crash into obstacles, says Bernadine Cruz, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Laguna Hills, California.
A cat without whiskers, for example, could suffer eye damage from walking through prickly underbrush and not getting the signal in time to shut his eyes.
“Without whiskers they can get wedged into a tight space,” adds Nancy Scanlan, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Sherman Oaks, California. This can be particularly dangerous in life-or-death moments — like when he’s running from a dog.
To keep your cat safe, it’s best to keep him indoors for several months until his new whiskers grow, says Dr. Cruz.
Don’t make big changes
If your cat has just had his whiskers shorn, it’s probably not the best time to be moving furniture or remodeling the house, says Mollyann Holland, D.V.M., a resident veterinarian in small animal medicine in the Department of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in Columbia. “He could have some difficulty with depth perception,” she says.
Groom with care
While some whisker injuries occur in the wild, they can also be a result of careless grooming. “Sometimes when owners groom their pets themselves they’ll trim the whiskers,” says Jan A. Hall, D.V.M., a veterinary dermatologist and referral specialist in Ville St. Laurent in Montreal.
The next time you’re giving kitty a trim, take a little off the top — but be sure to leave his whiskers alone.
Douse the flames
While it’s unlikely that curiosity actually killed a cat, it can cause them to get a little singed — particularly when they approach a candle flame or stove burner whiskers first. While whiskers that have been cut will usually grow back, those burned off at the base probably won’t, says Dr. Cruz. So if your pet persists in showing more curiosity than common sense, you may want to put him in another room until the flames are out.