The whiskers on your dog's face are no ordinary hairs. Not only do they make up your pet's unique appearance, they also play a crucial role in helping your dog understand and interact with the environment around them.
Formally known as vibrissae, canine whiskers are plugged into a dog's nervous system and act as sensory receptors to aid a dog's vision.
Other than trimming them for showing, there's no reason to ever cut your dog's whiskers. They're also highly sensitive to twisting and plucking, so you'll need to be careful whenever you come into contact with these all-important facial hairs.
Let's take a closer look at how dog whiskers work and why dogs have them.
Signs of Whisker Pain in Dogs
Whiskers are thicker and coarser than normal dog hair. While cat whiskers are neatly arranged on feline faces, dog whiskers are distributed with a more scattergun approach — they can vary in number from one dog to the next and can also appear on both sides of the muzzle, above the eyes, on the chin, and above the upper lip.
Depending on your pooch's coat and overall appearance, they may feature prominently on your dog's face or be hidden amid a mass of scruffy fur. But whatever the case may be, they play an important role in the way your dog experiences the world.
The follicles at the base of your dog's whiskers are packed with nerves that send vital sensory messages to the brain. As a result, you need to be careful when handling your pet's whiskers to avoid causing any pain or discomfort.
How a dog reacts to having their whiskers plucked or pulled, which is something you should never do to your pet, varies depending on the animal. Some pooches will pull away, try to hide their face and maybe paw at the site of the pain. Others may growl or yelp, lashing out as a reflex.
If your dog is showing persistent signs of pain around the whiskers and face, it's worth getting them checked out by your veterinarian to make sure there's nothing seriously wrong.
The Science of Dogs Having Whiskers
Many of us don't pay all that much attention to doggy whiskers. They look relatively insignificant and it's easy to assume they're essentially the same as human facial hair, but this is not the case.
As we touched on above, whiskers are technically known as vibrissae. Long and coarse, they look different to ordinary dog hair and also perform a very different role. At the base of each whisker, you'll find a rich supply of nerves, and these are used to transmit sensory messages to your dog's brain.
What this means is that whiskers actually help your dog get around. These highly sensitive hairs can pick up changes in air currents, as vibrations of the whiskers stimulate the associated nerves, and give your dog important information about the world around them.
By picking up vibrations in the air as well as subtle changes in wind speed and direction, vibrissae can help your pet "see" better. They can determine the presence of prey, ascertain the size and shape or objects, and detect any nearby motion.
Of the areas of your dog's brain reserved for processing touch information, almost 40 percent are dedicated to the parts of the body where the whiskers are located. This shows you just how important whiskers are and how they provide essential sensory details to the brain.
In short, whiskers are one of the reasons why your dog can stroll around the house at night without bumping into walls or falling down stairs, and why pets can easily navigate a range of obstacles at speed.
That's pretty remarkable all on its own. What's even more amazing is that some scientists think that whiskers may play a role in the defense strategy of our canine companions, as it's common for dogs to flare their whiskers and point them forwards when feeling threatened.
It's even possible that once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, dogs may have used their whiskers to locate food, just as creatures as diverse as rats and seals still do today.
They may look fairly inconspicuous and unimportant, but there's a whole lot more to dog whiskers than first meets the eye.
Looking After Your Dog's Whiskers
Whiskers are a whole lot more important than normal hair, so is there anything you can or should do to help your pooch keep their whiskers in optimum condition?
One of the key issues that concerns some owners, especially those interested in showing their dogs, is whether or not to trim or groom their pet's whiskers. Whiskers don't have pain receptors, so cutting them won't lead to any pain for your pooch — but what about the effects it could have on their ability to move around?
Unfortunately, there's not really any scientific evidence to support the idea that trimming a dog's whiskers will hamper their sensory skills. However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that removing whiskers can disrupt a dog's spatial awareness and lead to some confusion, so the safest approach is to simple leave these fascinating hairs alone. And if you've already had your dog's whiskers groomed and now you're worried that this could cause long-term problems for your pet, the good news is that they will grow back.
Finally, remember to be careful when handling your dog's face and
whiskers, for example when doing some basic grooming or giving them a
bath. It's also important to never pluck or twist your pet's whiskers. With the large supply of nerves at their base, this will cause a significant amount of pain for your pooch.
By a Labrador Retriever lover Tim Falk
Published: 06/11/2018, edited: 04/06/2020