By Carol McCarthy
While “whisker fatigue” might sound like something you get from kissing an unshaven man, it is actually a condition that can affect cats, causing them a good deal of stress. Learn more about whisker fatigue, and how amazing your cat’s whiskers are, below.
Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
“Cat whiskers are extraordinary sensing hairs that give them almost extrasensory powers,” says Dr. Neil Marrinan of the Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in Connecticut. Despite their evolution, whiskers (which scientists call tactile hairs or vibrissae), have remained as features on most mammals in some basic form.
For cats, whiskers are much more than facial adornments that add to their cuteness, Marrinan says. They act as high-powered antennae that pull signals into their brain and nervous system. The ultra-sensitive sensory organs at the base of the whiskers, called proprioceptors, tell your cat a lot about her world. They provide your cat with information regarding her own orientation in space and the what and where of her environment. In these ways, he says, whiskers help your cat move around furniture in a dark room, hunt fast-moving prey (by sensing changes in air currents) and help to determine if she can squeeze into that incredibly tight spot between the bookcase and the wall.
What is Whisker Fatigue?
While cats can voluntarily “turn on” the sensory focus of their whiskers exactly where they want, Marrinan says, whisker receptors mostly respond to a cat’s autonomic system — the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves that respond to the internal and external environment without conscious control (pupils constricting in response to bright light, for example).
You can think of whisker fatigue as an information overload that stresses out your cat. Because whisker hairs are so sensitive, every time your cat comes into contact with an object or detects movement, even a small change in air current or a slight brush against her face, messages are transmitted from those sensory organs at the base of her whiskers to her brain, Marrinan says. That barrage of “messages” could stress out your cat, eventually causing what some people call whisker fatigue.
However, Marrinan suggests that “fatigue” may not be the best description of the condition, since what your cat is feeling is probably more like distaste or aversion than soreness or actual fatigue. In fact, whisker stress is another term some people use for the condition.
Not all feline vets think whisker fatigue is a real condition or cause for concern. Dr. Cathy Lund of City Kitty, a feline-only veterinary practice in Providence, R.I, questions the validity of whisker fatigue. While a cat’s whiskers do serve as very sensitive tactile sensors, she does not believe contact between whiskers and objects causes stress in cats. That said, stress, for whatever reason, is a real issue of concern for cat owners and vets, Lund says.
What Causes Whisker Fatigue?
While your cat relies on her fetching facial antennae to navigate the world, she can’t tune out unnecessary messages the way we filter out background noise, Marrinan says. She inadvertently finds stimulation in the most common and ever-present situations, like at her food or water bowl. If her whiskers touch the sides of the bowl every time she dips her head to sip or eat, this can cause whisker fatigue, the theory suggests.
Your cat’s behavior at her food and water bowl will tip you off that she is stressed, Marrinan says. Some signs to watch for include pacing in front of the bowls, being reluctant to eat but appearing to be hungry, pawing at food and knocking it to the floor before eating or acting aggressive toward other animals around food. Of course these behaviors can also be related to potentially serious health conditions like dental disease, oral tumors, gastrointestinal diseases, behavioral problems and more, so if you have any concerns about your cat’s well-being, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian.
Marrinan says many vets, regardless of their opinions on whisker fatigue, agree that cats often find eating out of a bowl unappealing in general and providing a flat surface for meals is preferable.
Whisker fatigue is not a disease (and is not caused by or related to any type of illness) and appears to manifest primarily with the repeated daily contact with food and water bowls, Marrinan says. However, a cat who is stressed is not happy, and if she avoids eating and drinking, she might become malnourished and/or dehydrated.
How Can Whisker Fatigue Be Prevented?
Luckily, preventing or stopping stress related to whisker fatigue at feeding time is as easy as replacing your cat’s food and water bowls. At meal time, provide a flat surface or a wide-enough bowl for food so that her whiskers don't touch the sides of the bowl, Marrinan says. In a pinch, a paper plate can serve as a suitable food dish, he adds.
Most cats prefer a lip-less, large flowing water source, for drinking, he says. Ideally, cat parents should provide an automatic, fresh water source, which cats prefer “to an icky, stale bowl of water that might as well be from an old tire.”
Some cat parents believe another solution is to trim their cats’ whiskers, but this is a no-no. “Trimming whiskers mutes their expression, dims their perceptions, and in general, discombobulates cats and annoys them,” Marrinan says. “I do not recommend trimming cat whiskers.”