Cat Whiskers

These mystacial appendages are more important than they seem.

Cat Whiskers

These mystacial appendages are more important than they seem.

We've all had more than our fair share of scrolling through the internet. It's not uncommon for people to fall down various rabbit holes of content while looking for something totally unrelated, but one particularly enticing rabbit hole - and a dangerous one to fall into - are ones where cats reign supreme.

Videos and posts of cats cooking, eating, hunting, rolling around, or just being bizzare flood the internet on a daily basis, and people cannot look away. You name it, there’s probably cat related content to it. It cannot be a coincidence why so many people find watching cats be cats such an entertaining activity. Is it their cold yet affectionate personalities, their penchant for the oddest of activities (screaming endlessly for food at 3am, anybody?) or does the secret lie in their purr-fectly symmetrical bodies?

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, wrote Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in Molly Bawn (1878), or is there a more rigorous, mathematical approach to determining what is beautiful? This is a question that has exercised some of the greatest mathematical minds and fascinated many an artist and architect. Pythagoras and Euclid sought to determine “physical perfection” by comparing measurements, ratios, and symmetry, concluding that the ratio that best showed physical beauty was 1:1.618, the so-called Golden Ratio or φ.

To test if reality apes theory, people can measure their face against the Golden Ratio as so:  First, divide the length of the face by its width. Next, measure the distance from the forehead hairline to the spot between the eyes; from there to the bottom of the nose, and from there to the bottom of the chin. Finally, compare the two. The nearer the ratio between length and width is to 1.618 - and the closer all the measurements are to each other - the more beautiful the face is perceived to be.

Leonardo da Vinci, an ardent believer of the Golden Ratio, and a lover of cats famously declared that even “the smallest feline is a masterpiece”. What may have captured his imagination was the symmetry of the cat’s physiognomy. Cats, when compared to other domestic pets, have a remarkably proportionate body, especially in key facial features, such as their ears, eyes, the tongue, and nostrils. The cat came closest to the Golden Ratio with a score of 46.51%, closely followed by the ferret (46.2%). The average score for dogs -  after studying a hundred breeds - was just 29.64%, but the individual breed which scored highest was the Dalmatian (67.03%).

Picture a cat. its pointed ears, slit-pupiled eyes, tiny nose - and its whiskers.

What enhances the sense of symmetry in a cat’s face are its whiskers, that sprout like eccentrically trained moustaches from their cheeks. Typically, a cat will have twenty-four, although the number varies according to breed. They are arranged in four horizontal rows, of three whiskers each. The specific pattern that they make is as unique to each cat as our fingerprints are to us. Each moustache-like whisker is attached to a sling-like muscle at the base of the follicle, allowing the cat to move it individually or move them all as one - by deploying larger muscles that surround the whiskers,

It is this ability to move its whiskers that give us a good indication of how the cat is feeling, like a sort of emotional barometer. When resting and at peace with the world, a cat will relax its whiskers and they will stick out sideways. A classic cat pose - whiskers above a cat's eyes - shows that a cat is content and happy. It is also the favourite of pet photographers - after all, who doesn’t like a happy cat? Of course, you might want to steer clear when it pulls in its whiskers towards its face, which is a sign of aggression. If its whiskers are pulled behind, accompanied by it moving its ears to the side you may want to take a look around for anything that may cause it anxiety. You might want to check it for injury when it pulls its whiskers forward, a sign of pain.

Whiskers, or vibrissae, are upto three times longer than normal hair, and also deeply embedded into their skin. while the follicles itself contain no nerves, they are rooted in a nerve-packed area - so beware of yanking on your kitten’s whisker! Made of keratin,(the same stuff that's in our hair) they contain sensory receptors at each tip, which relays information to the brain, especially about touch and vibrations.

Each individual whisker has its own dedicated spot in a cat’s brain and around 40% of its sensory area is devoted to processing information derived from the vibrissae. not just a cute facial accessory, whiskers are essential for cats to navigate, detect the slightest change in airflow which alerts them to their proximity to another object, which is of paramount importance, especially in the dark. It also detects the slightest variation in their surroundings.

Watch a cat approach a narrow space and you will see it explore the gap gingerly with its head. Its whiskers are proportionate to the size of its body and if it can put its whiskers through the hole, then there will be enough room for the rest of its body. This is why there is an even number of whiskers each side of their face and why the distribution is symmetrical.

Other animals have interesting functions for their whiskers as well - for instance, seals use their whiskers to track trails left behind by fish underwater. The special wavy shape ensures the whisker stays steady as the seal swims, vibrating only in response to the trails left behind by swimming fish. As an added bonus to the seal, the whiskers are also able to pick up on information of how large its potential quarry is.

Interestingly, even one of the cat’s prey - the rat- has many uses for its whiskers! For one, the layout of whiskers forms a map of the brain, with each whisker corresponding to about 4,000 densely packed neurons. The whiskers are so crucial for keeping it alive that a rat without whiskers can be considered to be more disadvantaged than a blind rat! In fact, when a rat sheds a whisker its brain adapts to the loss of the whisker by allocating lesser space to the corresponding nerve bundle - until, of course, the whisker grows back.

The fluffier or chunkier the breed of cat is, the longer its whiskers will be. The largest breed of domesticated cat, the Maine coon cat, typically will have whiskers that span at least six inches. The longest recorded whiskers belonged to a Maine coon from Finland. The famed cat, Fullmoon’s Miss American Pie (aka Missi), had whiskers that were 7.5 inches long when measured on December 22, 2005. At the other end of the scale, the Cornish Rex, hairless except for a coat of down, boasts whiskers that are short and curly.

The proportionality of whiskers to the body is part of the genetic makeup of a cat. While the whiskers will grow in relation to the cat’s body size as it develops, they do not adjust after maturity.

Picture an enormous, fluffy little feline. Aww you go, it’s so cute! While an overweight cat may appeal to us visually, it  labours under a significant disadvantage.  Its all-important navigational, positional and information gathering aids - the whiskers - are out of order. The very basic survival tools of the cat are severely disabled. Not only does it become overly dependent on its humans, but it also turns lazier and suffers from a whole host of problems and causes pain for our pets. That’s probably reason enough to cut down on those treats to ensure that your furry friend remains as sleek and trim as nature intended.

For much the same reason, the moustache-like whiskers should never be cut or trimmed, even if the temptation to control a wayward whisker for that essential social media shot is almost irresistible. Alongside that, the process itself is very painful and disorienting to the cat - it would be a lot like if you lost your sense of touch and majority of your sight. It is important to note as well that whiskers go through a natural cycle similar to hair, where it grows, ages, is shed and then replaced.

When you see a post of a cat that is described as “chunky,” you usually wouldn’t think much of it. In fact, you may think it’s quite cute! Sadly, the truth is usually a lot darker - the majority of “chunky” cats are usually just overweight. Unlike humans, cats can not tell whether they are healthy at their size, nor do they have the ability to sit us down and tell us they need help.

As of late, though, there has been a trend of having cats that are cute as well as healthy, and the owners have responded in kind. For instance, the owners of Bronson are actively recording his journey to a healthier life - bringing him from an unhealthy 15 kg (33 lbs) down to a healthier 7.9 kg (17.4 lbs). Another pair of Internet famous kitties, Bruno and his brother Carlo, have had a collective weight loss of approximately 8.4 kg (18.5 lbs). Along with this comes an added bonus - since these cats have been adopted from shelters, it makes it more likely for adult cats to get adopted where they would normally have been passed by.

Another meme that has recently popped up is the “Full of Soup” meme, and awareness is only just starting to take off. The meme features a cat with an enlarged stomach. usually accompanied by an arrow that says “Full of soup”. The enlarged stomach, however, is a sign of more dangerous conditions: swelling of organs, intestinal parasites or an excess of fluid in the cat’s stomach, all of which are extremely painful to the animal and even potentially life threatening. The meme has the dangerous potential of normalising unhealthy bellies, writing them off as the cats just being “chunky.”

Luckily for our feline friends, enough awareness about the cruciality of their whiskers has been raised that their whiskers remain untouched.

Although they are the most striking, the moustache-like whiskers are not the only set that a cat possesses. There are two other sets located on its face, on the eyebrows (superciliary) and on the chin (mandibular), as well as a set located at the back of their forelegs, known as carpal whiskers. The latter especially come into their own when the cat is out hunting. While their vision is excellent at distance, cats have difficulty in seeing anything clearly that is within thirty centimetres of them.

Their carpal, and to a lesser extent, mandibular whiskers enable the cat to close on its prey, detect whether it is still moving, and where to direct that fatal bite. They also come in handy when they are out climbing, giving additional sensory input about precisely where they are, what is ahead of them and even its texture.

The whiskers of a cat are very well designed to perform their function, and ensure the cat is completely equipped to survive out in the world. While fashion fads have - thankfully - never involved cat whiskers (and hopefully never will), it is always great to be mindful of the important role these filaments play in our feline friends’ lives.

These appendages truly (and literally) are the cat’s whiskers!