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Whisker Fatigue or, The Older I Grow, the Less I Know!

Blog 29: Whisker Fatigue or, The Older I Grow, the Less I Know!

And so, dear reader, as we embark on the newest New Year, I am faced with the daunting task of confronting my profound ignorance of even the most commonly known facts. Some background info here: just before Christmas there was a line at our favorite pet emporium and so I idly perused a copy of Cat Fancy Magazine. When it came my turn to pay for such necessities as a laser pointer, grow it yourself catnip and the latest in feather flippers (as they are known at my house), I had to be nudged into action by my long suffering husband so engrossed was I in an article entitled “How to Combat Whisker Fatigue”. Of course I expect that you, dear readers, have already read this cleverly written article, but I was forced to cough up the extra $5 to bring said magazine home. Well! Who knew that the tragedy of Whisker Fatigue might have, even as I read, struck here in my very own home. I rushed to check the resident owners of said whiskers and, happy to report, all whiskers appeared to be perky, upstanding and fairly vibrating with energy. Not a fatigued whisker in sight. Breathing a sigh of relief, I turned to my trusty Google app so as to delve into the details of this formidable sounding malady. As I read I was astonished at the wealth of information concerning the “common” whisker. Of course I had always admired a good set of whiskers and have seen many of admirable quantity and size. Consider the tiger, for example. A better set of whiskers would be hard to come by—thick, strong, variously colored, capable of being folded flat back against the head or sprung forward in surprise.

Much can be learned from observing the whisker. My own cats, dogs and even a horse or two have sported formidable whiskers. Rocky, my Maine Coon, has admirable whiskers as you can see in this picture.

Baby cat whiskers are evident at birth and look much like the delicate petals of some exotic sea anemone. Being nuzzled by a bewhiskered kitten nose is a pleasure I anticipate with joy during the “bottle baby season”. I once watched in horror and astonishment as a mother horse nibbled her newly born foal’s whiskers down to the very fuzzy nose from which they sprang. I later learned that this is a common activity amongst mares, perhaps in anticipation of the day that the foal will return the favor by nibbling mom’s tail to an unbecoming length (probably just days before a horse show!), and that mother cats will sometimes de-whisker newborn kitten faces.

Maybe they tickle…however, who knew that a few hairs, however elegantly displayed, could provide such complex commentary? Not me, certainly. So…being a great believer that knowledge is power (and faced with an extremely snowy afternoon), I did a bit of delving into the subject of whiskers. So as to not burden you, gentle reader, with your own version of Whisker Fatigue, I will keep it short and sweet:

--Cats are farsighted and have trouble seeing things clearly close up. Whiskers, being the extraordinary sense organ that they are, help a cat “see” more clearly at night when they are hunting since they vibrate at even the slightest brush with prey.

--Research has shown that cats whose whiskers are damaged or lost have trouble estimating the size of openings. The longest of a cat’s whiskers approximates the width of the cat; therefore without whiskers to provide feedback the cat may underestimate the size of an opening and get stuck.

--Cat’s whiskers are important in maintaining equilibrium. Without them, they have trouble walking straight and have difficulty running. They also tend to get disoriented and fall!

--Cats whose whiskers have been cut short (who DOES these experiments? They must stop immediately!) struggle to judge distances accurately and so will often misjudge jumping distances.

--Whiskers are, thankfully, hair and, as with other kinds of hair, will eventually grow back unless the follicle itself is damaged beyond the body’s ability to repair itself.

--Cat’s whiskers are like human fingerprints and every cat’s whisker pattern is unique.

--Researchers are aware, without being able to explain, that whiskers aid somehow in helping cats detect odors.

--In addition to the obvious whiskers in horizontal rows on the “whisker pad” of their cheeks, there are also whiskers between the corner of a cat’s mouth, the outer corner of the nose, the chin, eyebrows and on the back of the front legs. (True! I checked all three cats!)

--The scientific name for a cat’s whiskers is “vibrissae” which hints at their sensitivity to vibrations in air currents.

--The hairless breed “Sphinx” is usually born with little or no whiskers although some may develop as the cat ages.

--Blind cats rely almost solely on their whiskers to navigate.

--Whiskers pulled back: the cat is angry or defensive. Whiskers relaxed or pushed forward: the cat is happy, curious, and contented.

--To be “The Cat’s Whiskers” is a British idiom meaning “to be better than everyone else!”

Back to the odd phrase, Whisker Fatigue…now that you are fully conversant in whisker-speak, you will certainly appreciate that when drinking or eating from a bowl that has straight sides which force the extraordinary whisker to come in contact with metal, porcelain or plastic, the whiskers go simply mad with mixed signals. The resulting sensory overload is alarming or overwhelming to many cats and may result in a lack of interest in food, water or even treats. Best to check with your vet, of course, but if your cat is rejecting food or water, it may indeed be experiencing “Whisker Fatigue’ which may easily be cured by the use of a shallow saucer-like dish or a water bowl large enough to accommodate the entire muzzle. For me, this all comes under the category of “who knew”.

So, from my house to yours; to your human and furry companions; your fish, feathered friends, reptiles or whatever have you…Here’s hoping for a 2017 that is “The Cat’s Whiskers” with no reason to pull back your whiskers or experience the tragedy of “Whisker Fatigue.” See you at The Center!

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