While Kitty’s whiskers add to her cuteness, they also serve a physiological purpose. “Your cats‘ whiskers are definitely a more complex organ than they may appear to be,” explains Dr. Jesus Aramendi, senior veterinarian at Chewy. “Cat whiskers, also known as vibrissae, are not just a set of long thick hairs attached to their cheeks. These hairs have the functionality to act as a sensory organ to aid your cat in understanding their surroundings in dim light, orienting themselves in tight spaces, and even detecting changes in air currents which alert them of movements.”
While it can be tempting to touch your cat’s whiskers in petting, you should not touch them often, if at all—doing so can harm a cat’s spacial understanding her world. “Simply put, whisker fatigue seems to be an overstimulation of the sensory system of the whiskers,” says Dr. Aramendi. “When the whiskers are touched too much, even if it is basic brushing against food and water dishes, or against furniture in the house, the cat’s brain will receive an overstimulation message from the whiskers, possibly making them feel stressed or agitated.”
Signs of Whisker Fatigue
Cats are notorious for hiding their pain and discomfort, but you can recognize whisker fatigue by paying close attention to the signs: avoiding her food bowl, pacing back and forth, or meowing as if she is distressed or something is wrong. She may also paw at her food bowl or get more aggressive when presented with the dish.
Why does this happen? “The most common cases of whisker fatigue that pet parents and veterinary professionals have reported are related to cats with long whiskers as well as water and food bowls that are deep, and rub against their whiskers while they’re eating or drinking,” explains Dr. Aramendi. The cat’s whiskers are being stimulated every time she dips her head to get food or water. Over time, this can be really irritating for the cat, and she will hesitate to eat or drink from the bowl or dish.
Prevention and Treatment
Whisker fatigue is not inevitable, though. It simply takes a change in mealtime habits. “If you observe some of these symptoms in your cat, there are a few at-home options you may want to try before consulting your veterinarian. One option is to switch your cat’s current food and water containers to shallow bowls with wide openings to avoid them rubbing their whiskers while they’re eating or drinking,” says Dr. Aramendi. For this, try the wide Frisco Fish Shaped Cat Dish ($7.96, chewy.com) or the Hyper Pet IQ Rewards Slow Feeder ($7.95, chewy.com).
“Another great solution is to incorporate cat hunting feeders and slow feeders into your cats’ mealtime routine. These feeders are toys and vessels that can be filled with food, and are designed to encourage play as well as mental and physical stimulation—the best part is they are gentle on your cat and their whiskers.”
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