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

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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Comments

  1. Vernice Aikens says:

    I knew this all along.. I was a little girl I know dogs are suppose to have whiskers it helps them..Older I became angry when a groomer cut my dog whister after I told her not to.. S I ask her did she want me to cut her fingers off..My dog needs her whiskers that is her world of knowing and feeling and knowing to search…Boy wasn’t I angry.

  2. dillon norman says:

    thanks for the answers to my presentation 😀

  3. Bijan Kheradi says:

    Great article. My groomer shaved off all my Goldendoodle Whiskers about a month ago. Since then he will not eat from his bowl and we have to feed him by hand. They are growing back slowly. Should I contribute his lack of eating from a food bowl to missing whiskers?
    Thanks for your help!

  4. Sue says:

    Thank for the information regarding the dogs whiskers. My little Chichuachua’s whiskers have grown a lot. And I was wondering if it were ok to cut them off.

    1. Vernice Aikens says:

      Didn’t you read the nature of dogs having whiskers.. or can’t you read… I have chihauhauh don’t cut them off…

  5. Bob Peterson says:

    I am 66 years old and have had dogs all my life. I have been training Dobermans and Rottweillers for 40 years and yet you taught me some things about wiskers I never knew. I am really knowlegable about dogs but it was a real pleasure learning from you. The other articles are very informative as well. Thanks, BOB.

  6. Roddy says:

    That was really interesting! I never knew that the whiskers are so important.
    We even sometimes laugh when brushing our Yorkie’s face and some whisker just gets falls out.
    Will be much more careful next time!

  7. B. Thesing says:

    Thank you!! I didn’t know about the real importance of the whiskers! I cut my dogs hair, she has long hair. The first time I trimmed her fur I cut her whiskers off!
    I’m happy to know they grow back!

  8. maureen van wyk says:

    My doggy’s whiskers are growing curving to the front….why?

  9. Diane says:

    My sister took her dog to get groomed now he jumpy and scarce and wont eat or use the bathroom does this have anything to do with his whiskers being cut

    1. Hope says:

      That is very possible or something I hate to think of the poor baby could have been mishandeled I would go to vet to rule out any medical issue or foul play and if the babie checks out okay it could be the groomer

  10. Tina Johnson says:

    My one year old dog’s name is ZINA, she is part rat terrier, Chihuahua, and Weiner dog, I was told. She has long whiskers and very alert. She weighs around 9 to 11 pounds. She is beautiful.

  11. Juan says:

    Great article. Good job, and thank you for educating us.

  12. Nicole says:

    Thank you very much for this article. I found a dog whisker on my bed and panicked instantly because I knew it was important, now it makes me feel better to know it will grow back.

  13. Roxana says:

    Thank you for your article, great help to learn about role of “vibrissae” (new to my dictionary). My husband was advised to trim hair of our little yorkie next to his eyes to avoid eye infecctions, he cut also his whiskers, “it didn’t feel right to me”, thanks again!

  14. rosa says:

    yikes!! I accidentally cut half of wiskers off my dog.. she’s been acting dumb lately… thank so much for the article and in educating me..

  15. Zachary Pruitt says:

    I was reading articles to myself while watching a movie with my boyfriend. When I got to this article I paused the movie to read it aloud. This article was well written, and very thorough.

    Kudos to you~

  16. Kimberly says:

    This was so….. interesting I’ve always wanted to know why dogs have whiskers I know that cat whiskers help them balance but this is just amazing now I know so much about my dog thank you for writing this

  17. Joyce Smith says:

    Thanks,so much for such informative info… I had no idea,my babies whiskers had so much purpose.. I do now, and will share this knowledge..

  18. Tess says:

    How interesting! Who would have thought dogs rely so much on their tactile sensations… it’s almost bat-like! And all this time I thought they were using their olfactory senses to navigate the world. This sounds even more sophisticated than that!

  19. Jennifer says:

    What an interesting article on dog whiskers. I learned so much. Thank you for sharing this.

  20. Good post. Didn’t know all that about dog whiskers.

    1. This article is very interesting. My puppy that is seven years old has whiskers and im glad to know NOT to cut them. I learned alot from this article. Im a very curious young preteen and I was very curious to know why dogs have whiskers. I know that cats have whiskers because they need to use them to balance theirselves and see if the can fit through small places or things. Now I know that dogs have a similar purpose .