Like sight, hearing, taste, and hearing, touch is an important sensory input. Humans feel the world around them primarily with their hands. Canines, on the other hand, use their face – or whiskers, to be specific.
Dogs have whiskers because those thick, coarse hairs let them sense their surroundings, feel for objects, and also perceive things better in dim light situations or when an object is a bit too close to its face. If your dog is feeling excited or anxious, whiskers communicate those feelings too.
Keep reading if you strongly believe that a dog’s whiskers have zero purposes and should be trimmed off at regular intervals.
What are Whiskers?
Also called “vibrissae” or “feelers”, whiskers are long, extremely sensitive hairs located strategically in your dog’s chin, above its eyes, and over the upper lip. Whiskers, unlike regular dog hair, do not cover your canine entirely. They are thicker and coarser than normal dog hair and have deep-seated roots – three times deeper than regular hair, to be more specific.
What purpose do whiskers serve? Whiskers are innervated or directed by a dog’s nervous system. It basically means whiskers have a large concentration of neurons at their bases. Each time a dog’s whiskers are touched, the connected neurons receive signals or warning signs. Irrespective of where they are positioned on your dog’s face, they serve the same purpose and have the same structure.
Whiskers, unlike what most people believe, do not or cannot feel anything by themselves. They basically transmit data to the sensory cells upon detecting movement or sensing a physical touch. Air flowing over, the dog brushing up against an object, etc. cause these sensitive hairs to pulsate and invigorate the hair follicle’s nerves. This ability to cause vibration explains why whiskers are called “vibrissae”, which means “to vibrate”.
All dogs have whiskers, irrespective of their age. Unlike humans, dogs need not attain puberty to grow their whiskers. Even new-born puppies have whiskers. Whiskers are, in fact, among the first set of hairs to grow in a dog.
Are There Differences in Whiskers Between Breeds?
Whiskers may vary in length, appearance, pattern, and location based on the dog breed. But there is no real difference in their function across breeds. Some dogs could develop a lot thicker, longer vibrissae compared to other dogs. And this disparity could be inter-breed or within the same breed.
If your dog has fewer whiskers than your neighbor’s dog, do not worry as the number of whiskers or its density has no major impact on how well your dog is able to sense its surroundings.
The Significance of Whiskers
Even though whiskers, like other hairs, originate from hair follicles, they are unlike other hairs that grow on different parts of your dog’s face and body – both in terms of appearance and function. Here are some of the things that whiskers help your pet dog accomplish:
Works as a Sensory Input
As mentioned above, whiskers are extremely sensitive to the subtlest of alterations around it. They are essentially tuned sensory tools that help your dog carry out its routine activities, like navigation.
Compared to regular hairs, whiskers are a lot more sensitive since the follicles they are rooted in are connected to nerves and blood vessels. A canine’s whiskers are, in fact, on par with human fingertips on the sensitivity scale. Humans sense touch with their fingers. Dogs do that with their whiskers as they have four feet and no hands. This explains why dogs rub their face against or sniff on objects.
Also, whiskers help a canine sense the presence of potential enemies, prey, or learn about its pack’s location in the wild. At home, dogs employ whiskers to locate their favorite toys and food bowls, after the sun has set.
Also, some dogs may like their whiskers being played with. If your dog likes it too, you may pull on its whiskers a little when petting or caressing your canine. It shall provide a massage-like feel to your dog.
Makes Up for Your Canine’s Compromised Near Vision
Dogs do not have the best of visions among mammals. They generally see things better when those are at a distance. When a thing or object is up-close, however, dogs have difficulty focusing on it. Whiskers help cover this shortcoming by constantly transmitting information about things right under a dog’s nose or very close to the face to the mammal’s brain.
As a canine comes closer to things physically, its breathing causes air currents to swirl and bounce back upon hitting solid objects. Whiskers identify the extremely faint vibrations induced by these air current changes and work as radar detectors. The neural response is good enough for your dog to learn there’s something in its vicinity before it has to even touch them.
Vibrissae helps dogs learn about the shape, speed, and size of nearby objects – ultimately helping your dog view objects a lot more clearly. Whiskers to a dog are what a cane is to a blind person. If your pet canine has decreased vision, it would need whiskers more than dogs with normal sight will require. Also, older dogs depend on their whiskers more than younger pooches.
Protects Your Dog Against Its Environment
Whiskers are sensitive enough to sense and respond to even the minutest of particles. For instance, a speck of dust resting on a whisker above the eye would cause the dog to shake its head or blink so that the dust particle doesn’t enter the eye and cause irritation or injury. If the whiskers sense a thorny bush or tall grasses in a path, they instruct the dog to back out of the place so that the eyes could be protected from being poked or scratched.
Whiskers also help dogs avoid getting stuck in narrow spots or slender spaces – for instance, between rocks or extremely confined areas in a living room. This helps the dog ascertain if they could fit in or move through the path without turning over any furniture or getting stuck. If your dog can deftly crawl under a bed or couch to get its toy, you should know that your dog’s whiskers are helping your dog achieve the feat.
Conveys Emotions and Helps Your Dog Engage
It’s not that difficult to detect curiosity or happiness in a dog if you know how to read its feelers. Whiskers relay messages about your dog’s feelings. They elevate when your dog is feeling delighted or intrigued, giving the dog a wide-eyed, cute appearance that is generally loved. When a dog is feeling intimidated, the whiskers flair and point toward the apparent threat, accompanied by a change in body language too.
Whiskers also help your dog:
- Communicate with various species
- Disperse pheromones
- Maintain head positioning while swimming, etc.
Is It Okay to Cut a Dog’s Whiskers?
It’s highly advisable to let your dog’s whiskers remain, even if they do not sit prettily on your pet’s face. Unlike cats that get whiskers in proper lines, dogs grow out whiskers sporadically or in random spots in their muzzle, above their eyes, etc. This makes a dog’s whiskers look not very streamlined or attractive. Even then, you should not be cutting your dog’s whiskers.
Whiskers do not have pain receptor cells. Cutting them, therefore, won’t be agonizing to your dog. However, the negative impact would be in the form of lost spatial awareness and confusion in your dog. The disorientation in your dog would be more apparent when it finds itself in low-light scenarios.
Whiskers, like regular hair, grow back. If your dog’s grooming person accidentally trimmed those whiskers off, you need not lose your mind. Just let the groomer know you don’t want your pet’s whiskers chopped off next time or moving forward. And yes, as unprofessional as it may seem, some groomers and even seasoned dog owners may not know how important whiskers are to a dog.
Also, never pluck your dog’s whiskers, as the base of the hairs has multiple nerve endings that cause pain when picked off. To mitigate accidental extractions, make sure your pet groomer is using the right tools. If your dog’s whiskers shed or break, you need not worry. They would grow back. But do not see the shedding as an excuse to trim those hairs.
It should now be clear that whiskers are not extra-long facial hair or the canine variant of a mustache. The purpose is defined and unique to mammals.
Dogs aren’t the only mammals with whiskers. Except for humans, almost all mammals or warm-blooded creatures have whiskers. The vibrissae found on dogs are quite similar to the feelers that cats, bears, rats, seals, etc. have. And the purpose being served is the same too.
Long story short, do not cut your dog’s whiskers. If you’re grooming your pooch for a pet show, you might trim your dog’s whiskers then. However, let that be one-off events and do not make a routine out of it. And when you do chop off those whiskers, make sure you are a lot more protective of your dog.