What is the Purpose of Dog Whiskers?

June 23, 2014

By Linda Cole

Like cats and other animals, dogs have whiskers that stick out from the sides of their muzzle. Technically, they aren’t whiskers – they’re called vibrissae, which comes from a Latin word “vibrio” that means to vibrate. A dog’s whiskers are actually highly tuned, multi-functional, sensitive sensory hairs they need and use every day to perform specific functions that help them move around in their world.

Dog whiskers are found on both sides of their muzzle, as well as on the forehead above the eyes, on their chin and above the upper lip. As puppies grow, the whiskers are among the first hairs to develop. Unlike the neatly arranged 12 whiskers in four rows on each side of a cat’s face, dog whiskers are more varied in their pattern depending on their breed and genetics.

Whiskers are twice as thick and coarser than regular dog hair. Their roots are set three times deeper and packed with nerves and blood vessels that make each individual whisker a super sensitive receptor to movement. Air moving it or objects brushing against it causes the whisker to vibrate and stimulates the nerves. Dog whiskers are as sensitive as our fingertips. Whiskers play an important role in helping dogs understand and move through their environment.

The primary function of whiskers is to aid a dog’s vision, and they are often referred to as tactile hair. Whiskers pick up the slightest vibrations in the air, as well as subtle shifts in wind direction and speed. This alerts dogs to the presence of prey or other objects close by and tells them size, shape and if there’s any motion. Whiskers are why a dog can hunt in the dark and keep from crashing into furniture, falling down steps or bumping into walls as he walks around the house at night. Moving air currents cause the whiskers to vibrate and alert a dog to an obstacle or prey. When a dog is approaching something in his path, air is stirred up as he moves. When the air hits a wall, other surfaces or another animal, it bounces back and is picked up by the dog’s radar-like whiskers.

The vibrissae are also handy for finding small objects, like a tasty CANIDAE treat on the ground or a toy. Dog eyes can’t focus on objects up close, so information gathered from his whiskers helps him find, identify and pick up something that’s right under his nose.

Whiskers help dogs know if they can fit through a narrow opening or not. They are sensory receptors that help canines navigate. Dogs bred to go to ground need to know if a hole is big enough for them to crawl through. These receptors also give him information about obstacles that may be in the way and they also send information about the shape and size of a critter hiding in a den. Whiskers also help protect the face and eyes. When a dog brushes his whiskers against dirt, tall grass or anything else, it causes him to blink his eyes and avoid injury. The whiskers above his eyes lets him know if he’s too close to something and helps to keep him from getting poked in the eye.
dog whiskers rennett
Every now and then you might find a whisker that’s fallen out. It will grow back, but you should never try to pull a whisker out. You might run across a groomer who wants to cut your dog’s whiskers. However, it’s best not to trim the whiskers because that makes it more difficult for a dog to feel around his face and move with confidence. Because whiskers are very sensitive, pulling on them will cause your pet discomfort and stress. The importance of the whiskers is easier to understand when you consider the areas of the brain devoted to touch information. Almost 40% of those areas are dedicated to the regions where the whiskers are located. In fact, each individual whisker can be traced back to a specific location in the brain.

Think about your dog’s whiskers as tiny radar detectors that are so finely tuned they can help him detect a rabbit hiding under a bush or keep him from running face first into a wall. The superior hunting ability of canines is one reason why the human/dog partnership has been so successful, and his whiskers help him do the job he was bred to do.

Top photo by James Rickwood
Middle photo by jason044
Bottom photo by Rennett Stowe

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