A dog's whiskers make up an important part of their appearance, giving our pooches the unique look we know and love. However, you may be surprised to learn that your dog's whiskers aren't just any old facial hair. In fact, they actually have special powers to help your pet explore and understand the world around them.
If you're wondering whether your dog will feel pain if you cut their whiskers, for example during grooming, the answer is no. But because they're linked to a wide range of nerves and blood vessels, whiskers are much more sensitive to being plucked, and unless there's any medical reason for them to be removed, they should be left intact.
Signs of Whisker Pain
Canine whiskers stick out from the side of the muzzle, jaw, and above the eyes. Depending on the breed, they might feature quite prominently on your dog's face or be lost in a sea of bushy fur, and you may notice that they're usually some of the first hairs to develop in young pups. However, one thing that all dogs do have in common is that their whiskers perform an important role.
In fact, dog whiskers technically aren't whiskers at all but are actually known as vibrissae. Your dog relies on these highly sensitive tools to gather and analyze information about the world around them, which means you need to treat them a little differently to ordinary hairs.
While whiskers can be cut and trimmed without causing any pain for your pooch, pulling, twisting or plucking them will definitely cause your dog grief. Of course, the way a dog reacts to this pain will vary depending on the animal involved and the level of discomfort. Some dogs will yelp, growl, or whine, and all will try to pull away as quickly as possible. Others may paw at their face to let you know that all is not right.
With this in mind, make sure to exercise caution whenever you're coming into contact with your pet's whiskers, as the last thing you'll want to do is cause your pet any pain.
The Science of Dogs Having Whiskers
What's so special about dog whiskers that makes them so much more important to your dog than those hairs sprouting from your own chin are to you? Vibrissae are thicker and coarser than regular dog hairs, and their roots are set three times deeper than ordinary hairs. And it's under the surface where things get really interesting, as the follicles at the base of vibrissae are chock full of nerves that transmit essential sensory messages to a pet's brain.
These remarkable hairs are highly sensitive to changes in air currents and allow your dog to gather a host of important details about nearby objects — how big they are, what shape they are, and what speed they're moving at. Just like your fingertips are highly sensitive tools that are crucial to the way you interact with the world, so, too, are canine whiskers important to the way your dog moves through the environment around them.
While dogs have a super-powered sense of smell, their vision isn't anywhere near as effective, so their whiskers help them 'see' the world around them more clearly than they could if they could only rely on their eyes. And because their whiskers can sense vibrations in the air — vibrissae comes from the Latin word "vibrio", which means "to vibrate" — our canine companions have an extra tool to help them detect approaching danger.
Scientists have also shown that, just like many small mammals, some dog breeds even use their whiskers to determine whether they'll be able to squeeze through small spaces. It's also possible that at some stage in their history, the ancestors of today's domesticated dogs may have used their whiskers to locate food.
So the next time you're gazing lovingly at your dog's gorgeous face, take a moment to marvel at those fairly innocuous looking hairs that nonetheless perform an important job.
Caring for Your Dog's Whiskers
Now that you know that there's a little more to doggy whiskers than first meets the eye, you're probably wondering if there's anything you can do to take better care of your pet's facial hair.
For some owners, particularly those that like to show their dogs, a face full of whiskers protruding this way and that can seem a little less than aesthetically pleasing. There may be a temptation to trim those whiskers to give your pet a more groomed, neat and tidy look, but it's usually best to just leave them alone.
While there's no scientific evidence to support the idea that trimming vibrissae has a significant impact on how dogs interact with the world around them, there is anecdotal evidence of dogs suffering from confusion or reduced spatial awareness after having their whiskers cut.
So, if you're at all concerned that trimming your dog's whiskers will cause a reduction in the ability to perceive what's going on around them don't hesitate to leave those facial follicles alone.
What about if you've already done a spot of whisker grooming and you're now worried that your pet is at a disadvantage? The good news is that just like normal hairs, whiskers will grow back.
Finally, remember to be gentle whenever you're handling your dog's whiskers for any reason, and be careful not to twist or pluck them. And the next time you see your dog instinctively get down on their haunches and crawl under your bed to fetch their ball rather than just wander in at normal height and bang their head, remember that their whiskers helped them do it.
By a Labrador Retriever lover Tim Falk
Published: 05/09/2018, edited: 04/06/2020