Why Do Animals Have Whiskers?

iStock/Chloe Effron
iStock/Chloe Effron / iStock/Chloe Effron

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Humans don’t have whiskers, but most other mammals do. These wiry hairs growing out of an animal’s face, forehead, and sometimes legs have a fancy scientific name: vibrissae (Vi-BRISS-uh). From cats and dogs to rats and seals, animals use whiskers to help them find their way and follow their prey.

Not all animals have great eyesight, and some need to be able to hunt and move at night when it’s harder to see. Plus, animals with long snouts, like dogs, sometimes have trouble seeing things that are right in front of their big noses! So for a lot of animals, whiskers are a little like fingers. We use our fingers to “see” in the dark by feeling things around us. But other animals brush, or whisk, their whiskers against objects to guide them, measure things, and find food. 

Whiskers aren’t just hairs. Where each whisker is rooted in the skin are lots and lots of nerve cells. When the whisker touches something, these nerve cells send messages to the brain. It’s amazing how much information an animal’s brain gets from the whiskers. Rats’ whiskers help them make mental maps of the world around them. Seals use their whiskers to sense the vibrations of a fish moving in the water. Many animals use whiskers to figure out whether or not they can fit through a tight space. Whiskers may look cute, but they also help animals survive.

Here’s a fun video from the BBC about how cats use their whiskers to catch prey.