What is Whisker Fatigue in Cats?

April 22, 2016

By Julia Williams

I’ll be honest. The first time I read about whisker fatigue I checked my calendar to see if it was April Fool’s Day. I thought, this can’t really be a thing… can it? My cats have eaten their food from small ceramic bowls for as long as I can remember, and they never seemed to have any issues. In fact, they practically inhale their food – it’s gone the moment the dish hits the floor. I didn’t consider whisker fatigue to be a legitimate concern, so I chalked it up to yet another brilliant marketing strategy.

When the topic of whisker fatigue began popping up regularly on my social media feeds, I had second thoughts. What if I’d been too hasty in discounting it? I’d surely lose my “Excellence in Cat Care” badge if my feline companions were bothered by something and I was doing nothing about it.

I decided to take another look at whisker fatigue. Here’s what I discovered.

Whisker What?

A cat’s whiskers are pretty amazing things. Yes, these long, thick hairs located on your cat’s face make him look uber adorable, but they are so much more than a cute adornment. Whiskers are actually sensitive touch receptors that perform many functions and provide cats with important information about their surroundings. These receptors send information to the cat’s brain and nervous system that help them do things like navigate around objects in the dark, determine if they’ll fit through an opening, and assist with balance and hunting. You can read a more in-depth analysis of cat whisker’s here.

Because whiskers are highly sensitive, if they are over-stimulated the cat can experience whisker fatigue. Contrary to what the name might imply, whisker fatigue doesn’t mean the whiskers become tired. A better way to describe it might be whisker stress.

The most common cause of whisker fatigue is from something a cat does every day – eating. That charming little bowl you serve their food in could be allowing the whiskers to touch the sides of the bowl. A high-sided water bowl can contribute to whisker stress as well. At best, it can annoy your cat to have his whiskers repeatedly come into contact with the dish as he chows down his food or takes a drink. For some cats, it can be quite painful.

Signs of Whisker Fatigue

If your cat is bothered by his whiskers touching the side of the food bowl, you may notice that he frequently leaves food in the bowl but acts like he’s still hungry and wants more. There’s a funny cartoon that shows an insistent cat bothering his human for food even though the bowl is still half full. Maybe, just maybe, this cartoon cat isn’t being a pest for no good reason. Perhaps he wants the food “topped off” so he can eat without his whiskers touching the bowl!

Other signs of whisker fatigue include using the paws to remove food from the bowl to eat it from the floor; staring at the food for a time before eating; pacing and acting hesitant to eat; aggressive behavior toward other pets during mealtime; meowing for you to fill the bowl when the kibble falls below the rim of the bowl.

How to Prevent Whisker Fatigue

The good news is that if whisker fatigue affects your cat, it’s easily remedied. All you really need to do is provide a different feeding dish. While you’re at it, replace their water bowl too. The bowls you choose should be wide and shallow, allowing your cat to access the food and water without pulling his whiskers back to avoid uncomfortable contact with the dish. Some pet stores now  carry cat food bowls designed specifically to alleviate whisker fatigue. A large, flat plate can also work in a pinch.

The right dish can ensure that your kitty and his whiskers are happy little campers at mealtime. If your cat is anything like mine, his CANIDAE food will be “hoovered” in record time! Some of my cat blogging friends have noticed a great improvement in their cat’s eating habits after switching to a bowl that alleviates whisker fatigue.

If  you’ve noticed signs of whisker fatigue in your cat and have a favorite food bowl, please share the info with us!

Read more articles by Julia Williams

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