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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  1. Theresa says:

    Thank you for the fantastic information

  2. Joyce says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I just happened to stumble acrossit, totally by accident. We have a very sick cat and his survival depends on him eating, more than a half a can a day which is what he was doing..His eating habits were pretty much as you described in the article. I tried this suggestion with a shallow, wide bowl and BAM!!! he’s now eating the two cans a day he desperately needs. Thank you again, I was at my witts end!!!

    1. Sharalee Wake says:

      Helpful article!

  3. Elizabeth Munroz says:

    This is totally fascinating and informative! Wow! I never knew that about cat whiskers and I’ve had cats for 70 years. I’ve now told a few other people about this interesting fact. They didn’t know it either. There are so many things we don’t know about cats! I hope to read more!

  4. Bobbi for Maggie May says:

    Amazing. I wondered why my recently adopted 3 yr old would take her dry food out of the bowl and eat it off the place mat or floor. I do put her daily wet food on a small flat dish and she is ok. I need to get the proper dish for the dry. Thanks

  5. Socks prefers to eat out of a flat dish or one that is very wide (which is my choice as he is such a messy eater). Yin and Chimera actually pick their food up in their paws to eat it.

  6. Heather says:

    I’ve never heard this term but changing to a flat dish is often recommended in our rescue group as a solution to some eating problems. Glad to know it has a name!

  7. Ann Adamus says:

    Thanks for sharing important information (we had no knowledge of this issue). Certainly it all makes perfect sense, and one we plan to act on soon. Great article.

  8. We would have had the same response! What the heck but if its true!!!!

  9. d'Artagnan says:

    Interesting… I think we should invest in some new bowls here! Great article!!

  10. Yes, it did seem like a joke when I first heard of this recently, but my cats are now eating off of what I call sandwich plates and they seem to enjoy it more than their old bowls with the high sides.

  11. Great article, Julia. We only learned about whisker fatigue recently. We replaced our food bowls, and Zoe seems to enjoy mealtimes a lot more. 🙂

  12. Rachel says:

    Very good information here, thank you!

  13. This is such an important topic, but you wouldn’t know it until you read this post and realized just what might be going on. My kitties drink water and eat out of wide, shallow soup bowls and small ones which I might have to think twice about now..

  14. I didn’t know about whisker fatigue either until recently. Everything makes sense in how Brulee was eating. I’ve replaced her eating dishes and things are so much better.

  15. Excellent article. I recently learned of whisker fatigue and thought it was a joke too. It does make sense that whiskers are very sensitive so a cat will prefer a wider bowl.

  16. Christine C says:

    Thanks for putting this out there. Ever since learning about whisker fatigue, I have only bought dishes that won’t mess with my 2 kitties’ whiskers.

  17. Summer says:

    Re whisker fatigue, I think we kitties would be much better served on a plate than a bowl… preferably one made of fine China.

  18. When we learned about whisker fatigue, we bought our cats pedestal food dishes, which have low sides and flat surface for the food. They love them! Our oldest would walk away like you say Julia, but now not so much. They also have a nice large water fountain that gives them access to water without having to scrunch their whiskers. Great and pertinent information.

  19. Connie says:

    people laugh at cats when they tell you their bowl is empty but to us, it isn’t because there is a ring of food around the outside of the bowl… that is the whiskers talking. It is why they take their food out of the bowl and put it on the floor. People think cats are being jerks, they aren’t, they are dealing with humans not understanding cats.

  20. elizablest says:

    One of my cats whiskers keep breaking off. He never has a full “set”. Wondering what that’s about.

    1. Connie says:

      what are you putting their food in?

  21. Jenn says:

    Excellent information! I need to replace my kittehs’ water dish, I think. Thank you!