When most people think of whiskers, they think of cats — even the most straightforward drawing of a cat often includes long whiskers — but did you know that dogs have whiskers too?
Just like cat whiskers, dog whiskers are technically called vibrissae, Latin for "to vibrate." Almost all mammals have vibrissae — even humans have vestigial muscles of vibrissae in our upper lip.
Vibrissae come in various arrangements, with the number and shape varying by species. In dogs, the length and number of whiskers can vary by breed. While many people think that there are significant differences between dog whiskers and cat whiskers, most whiskers are very similar in makeup and function, even across different species.
Even though whiskers are nearly universal in mammals, almost everything we know about whiskers comes from studies on a handful of species, including rats and mice. We may learn much more about dog whiskers in the future if the scientific research expands to include more species.
Dog Whisker Anatomy
Mammals like dogs have two types of whiskers — long and short. Long whiskers are called macrovibrissae. Mammals can move long whiskers voluntarily — a movement called whisking — but researchers haven't seen this type of movement in carnivores like dogs. Short whiskers are called microvibrissae and are used to relay tactile sensations to the brain. This is similar to how humans use the fine-touch nerves in our hands and fingertips to relay information about our tactile environment to our brains.
Dogs have four distinct types of whiskers:
- Genal whiskers: Cheek whiskers that aid your dog's peripheral vision
- Interramal tufts: Whiskers below the chin that help your dog sense what's under its face
- Mystacial whiskers: Muzzle whiskers located on your dog's upper lip — these are your dog's most noticeable whiskers
- Supraorbital whiskers: Eyebrow-like whiskers situated just above your dog's eyes
Dog whiskers are longer and thicker than regular hairs, and whisker follicles are larger and contain many more nerve endings. Whiskers typically have a smooth surface and a tapered shape, with increased flexibility toward the thinner tip of the whisker.
When dog whiskers come into contact with a surface, they bend, which receptors in the follicle sense. These receptors send information about the object the whiskers have come into contact with to the dog's brain.
Dog whisker development needs further study. Some evidence suggests that whiskers develop before regular hair. This might indicate that whiskers are an essential source of sensory information for newborn mammals. Studies with rats and mice suggest that natural whisker sensation during the first week of life seems critical to their brain development and behavior. Whisker sensation during the newborn period may also be essential with other mammals like dogs.
What Are Dog Whiskers Made Of?
Whiskers aren't regular hair — though whiskers and hair are made of the same kind of cells, dog whisker anatomy is different from normal hairs' anatomy.
Whiskers are curved, tapered, thread-like strands of keratin. Keratin is the same protein that makes up hair, skin, and nails, but whiskers grow out of different follicles than hair, and whisker follicles are situated much deeper under the skin's surface than hair follicles. Whiskers are longer, more rigid, and have more nerves attached to them than regular hair.
Are Dog Whiskers Sensitive?
Like all mammals, dog whiskers are sensitive. Dog whiskers are used as a sensory organ — similar to human fingertips — and have a lot of nerves attached. A dog will feel even a light touch on its whiskers — a dog's whiskers can even detect changes in air currents.
Studies suggest that whisking mammals have more sensitive whiskers than other mammals, so a dog's whiskers may be less sensitive than a rat's or a mouse's whiskers.
What Are Dog Whiskers For?
The importance of dog whiskers hasn't yet been scientifically proven for domestic dogs, but it's widely believed that dogs use their whiskers to help navigate the world around them. Dogs may use their whiskers for spatial awareness, to navigate spaces in the dark, and even to sense changes in temperature and wind speed.
Around 40% of your dog's brain's sensory areas are aligned to the body parts with whiskers, suggesting that whiskers are significant touch sensors.
Dog whiskers may help your dog communicate emotions. Dogs feeling defensive can flare their whiskers and direct them at the threat.
Can You Cut Dog Whiskers?
No. Dog whiskers should never be cut unless medically necessary. Cutting a dog's whiskers is distressing for the dog and can lead to dangerous situations like the dog getting stuck in a small space due to a lack of spacial awareness. While cutting whiskers isn't painful — the whiskers' follicles contain nerves, not the whiskers themselves — it can cause confusion and disorientation.
Trimming whiskers is nothing like typical grooming — it's more like a temporary amputation than a haircut. A veterinarian may on rare cases trim whiskers to treat a facial wound, but whiskers should never, ever be cut by a dog owner.
Dog whiskers can break, so it's important to be mindful of whiskers if your dog enjoys roughhousing or other rough-and-tumble-play. Never pull out a dog's whiskers or allow a child to tug on them. The whisker follicle is highly innervated, so pulling a whisker out is very painful for a dog, and bleeding may occur.
If a dog's whiskers are broken or cut, it can take up to two months for them to grow back.
Do Dog Whiskers Shed?
While whiskers do occasionally shed, shedding whiskers excessively isn't normal and can signal an underlying health problem.
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that occurs in dogs and other mammals that can cause loss of body hair, eyelashes, and whiskers in dogs. Dental problems can also cause whisker loss.
You should contact your dog's veterinarian if you notice your dog shedding a lot of whiskers or if your dog has brittle whiskers that continuously break. Your veterinarian can help you determine if there's an underlying health condition and how to move forward with treatment.