Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?

Michael Kilcoyne, Unsplash
Michael Kilcoyne, Unsplash / Michael Kilcoyne, Unsplash

To many dog owners, whiskers are just another cute feature on their pet's face. But they're much more than that to the pups who sport them. Unlike certain qualities selected by breeders over the years, a dog's whiskers serve an important purpose that's crucial to how canines perceive the world.

According to Live Science, the whiskers, or vibrissae, on a dog's muzzle and eyebrows are different from the hairs coating the rest of their body. In addition to being long and stiff, these hairs are rooted in nerve-packed follicles deep in the skin. When a whisker brushes against something—like a food bowl or a person's hand—it relays sensory information to the brain that helps the dog assess what's in front of them.

Even without touching an object, whiskers can still pick up useful clues. They're sensitive enough to register minute movements in the air, which can alert dogs to nearby threats. Purina compares the sensitivity of a dog's whiskers to a human's fingertips.

Dogs and people sense their surroundings in different ways. While dogs don't actually see in black and white, they do perceive fewer colors than humans do and their vision may not be as sharp. Other senses make up for these literal blind spots, including touch. Using their whiskers, dogs can better navigate in the dark, judge the sizes of small spaces, avoid danger, and track prey. Even if your pet doesn't need them for survival, they can still use them to communicate. When a dog's whiskers are bristled and facing forward, this is a sign they feel threatened.

If you regularly cut your dog's fur, you may wonder if you can trim or even pluck their whiskers as well. The Veterinary Centers of America recommends against this, as it can leave your pet feeling uncomfortable and disoriented. But don't worry too much if the damage has been done—dog whiskers do grow back.

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