Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?

They're more important to the everyday life of a dog than you might think!

close up border collie face dog, amber eye colour "sheep dog"elliz/Shutterstock

What are whiskers?

Even if you don’t have a pet, you probably have a basic idea of what whiskers are. Even as a little kid, if you were sketching a dog or cat, you made sure to draw the little lines sticking out from its nose. But why do dogs have whiskers? No, they aren’t extra-long facial hairs, like the dog version of a mustache. The purpose of dog whiskers is something totally different. Whiskers, also known as “vibrissae,” are the coarse hairs around dogs’ noses and jaws, and above their eyes as well. To be exact, “whiskers are specialized hairs that are tied to sensory nerves around a dog’s face,” explains Dr. Jennifer Coates, Chewy vet expert. Cats, rabbits, rats, and lots of other animals have whiskers as well.

Why do dogs have whiskers?

So what do dog whiskers do? It turns out that they play a crucial role in the way dogs approach the world around them. Different from ordinary hairs, the hair follicles at the base of whiskers are equipped with nerves. So whiskers are very sensitive to everything from physical objects to shifting air currents. When whiskers come into contact with something, the nerves send signals to the dog’s brain, allowing the dog to evaluate what’s close by. “A dog’s whiskers can help them sense a nearby object, even in the dark, before they bump into it and potentially injure themselves,” Coates explains. It’s similar to the way humans feel things (especially when visibility is poor) with their hands. (Find out all the ways dogs are smarter than you think.)

This is a particularly important function for a couple of reasons. Firstly, dogs’ vision is not a strong a sense as vision is in humans—their sense of smell is much more adroit—especially when it comes to close-up vision. And, of course, dogs don’t have hands—they have four legs. So whiskers serve a major purpose in helping dogs discern what’s in front of and around them.

What else do dog whiskers do?

Is there a purpose of dog whiskers besides helping dogs feel things around them? Well, that is the primary purpose. But another answer to the question “why do dogs have whiskers” involves how the dog is feeling, and how they show it. “Dogs also appear to use their whiskers to convey their state of mind,” Coates told RD.com. “For example, when a dog is alert and engaged with their surroundings, their whiskers tend to be upright, while the whiskers on a reserved or timid dog often will be held close to the face.” A dog that feels threatened may “flare” its whiskers and then point them forward as an instinctual defensive reaction. Your dog’s tail has plenty of things it can tell you, too.

Should you cut your dog’s whiskers?

Now that you know what dog whiskers are for, you may be wondering if it’s OK to cut them. Trimming whiskers won’t hurt the dog, since whiskers don’t contain pain receptors, nor is it permanent because whiskers will grow back. But losing part or all of their whiskers can alter your dog’s spatial awareness, which can lead the dog to become confused and disoriented.

Next, learn the signs your dog is secretly mad at you.

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest