While “whisker fatigue” sounds like what men who get tired or shaving may get, it’s possibly a very stressful condition a cat can get.
WHY DO CATS HAVE WHISKERS?
For cats, whiskers are much more than facial adornments that add to their cuteness, Dr. Neil Marrinan of the Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in Connecticut. says. They serve as high-powered antennae that pull signals into their brain and nervous system. The ultra-sensitive sensory organs at the base of the whiskers are called proprioceptors. These organs tell your cat a lot about her world. They provide your cat with information regarding her own orientation in space and helps them navigate and be aware of things in their environment. In these ways, he says, whiskers help your cat move around furniture in a dark room, hunt fast-moving prey (by sensing changes in air currents) and help to determine if she can squeeze into that incredibly tight spot between the bookcase and the wall. Generally if a cats head and whiskers can pass through a tight space, the rest of the cat can squeeze through, which leads to comic videos on YouTube of obese cats having embarrassing moments as their whiskers are not to be trusted and the space was not as wide as their tummies all the time.
“Cat whiskers are extraordinary sensing hairs that give them almost extrasensory powers,” Dr. Marrinan says “Despite their evolution, whiskers (which scientists call tactile hairs or vibrissae), have remained as features on most mammals in some basic form”.
WHAT’S WHISKER FATIGUE?
A woman may consider whisker fatigue the frustration of kissing a rough-faced partner repeatedly, but for some highly sensitive cats, it’s a serious annoyance. While cats can voluntarily “turn on” the sensory focus of their whiskers exactly where they want, Marrinan says, the cats whisker receptors mostly respond to a cat’s autonomic system — the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves that respond to the internal and external environment without conscious control (pupils constricting in response to bright light, for example). Whiskers work automatically, even when a cat doesn’t want them too.
You can think of whisker fatigue as an information overload that stresses out your cat. It is a literal “too much information” being taken in by these extraordinary sense organs. Because whisker hairs are so sensitive and can perceive change in air currents, or a slightest brush against her face every time your cat comes into contact with an object or detects any movement, or there is a new stimuli in their surroundings, messages are transmitted from the sensory organs at the base of her whiskers to her brain, Marrinan says. That barrage of “messages” and CNS data could stress out your cat, eventually causing what some people call whisker fatigue.
However, Marrinan suggests that “fatigue” may not be the best description of the condition, since what your cat is feeling is probably more like being overwhelmed and feeling distaste or aversion than soreness or actual fatigue. “Whisker stress” is another term some people use for the condition.
Not all feline vets think whisker fatigue is a real condition or cause for concern. Dr. Cathy Lund of City Kitty, a feline-only veterinary practice in Providence, R.I, questions the validity of whisker fatigue. While a cat’s whiskers do serve the role of sensitive tactile sensors, she does not believe excess contact between whiskers and objects causes stress in cats. However, a happy cat is a relaxed and unstressed cat and therefore whisker fatigue is a real issue of concern for cat owners and vets, Lund says.
WHAT CAUSES WHISKER FATIGUE?
While your cat relies on her data-collecting facial antennae to navigate the world around her, she can’t tune out unnecessary messages the way we filter out background noise, Marrinan says. She inadvertently finds undesirable stimulation everywhere and in common omnipresent situations such as at her food and water bowl. If her whiskers touch the sides of the bowl every time, she dips her head to sip or eat, this can cause whisker fatigue, the theory of whisker fatigue claims.
Your cat’s behavior at her food and water bowl will tip you off that she is stressed, Marrinan says. Signs of whisker fatigue to observe in your cat includes agitated pacing in front of the bowls, being reluctant to eat but appearing to be hungry, pawing at food and knocking it to the floor before eating or acting aggressively toward other animals around food. Cats are cats however, and these behaviors can also be related to potentially serious health conditions like dental disease, oral tumors, gastrointestinal diseases, behavioral problems and more, so if you have any concerns about your cat’s well-being, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian. These behaviors may also even be normal for your cat. Some cats have certain behaviors and quirks unique to them and if there is a change in that behavior, a vet visit is warranted.
Marrinan says many vets, regardless of their opinions on whisker fatigue, agree that cats often find eating out of a bowl unappealing in general and providing a flat surface for meals is preferable. This is not why cats try to steal food from our plates however.
Whisker fatigue is not a disease (and is not caused by or a symptom any type of illness) and appears to show up with repeated daily contact with deep food and water bowls, Marrinan says. However, a cat who is stressed may stop eating or drinking and avoidant of the dishes, she might become malnourished and/or dehydrated.
HOW CAN WHISKER FATIGUE BE PREVENTED?
Preventing stress at a cat’s mealtime is as easy as changing your cat’s food and water bowls. At feeding time, provide a flat surface or a wide shallow enough bowl for cat food so that her whiskers don’t touch the sides of the bowl, Marrinan says. In a pinch, a paper plate can serve as a suitable food dish, he adds.
Most cats prefer a lip-less, large flowing water source, for drinking, he says. A cat should always have fresh water. Ideally, cat owners should employ an automatic, refilling water source, like a cat water fountain, which cats prefer “to an icky, stale bowl of water that might as well be from an old tire.”
There are cat owners that maintain a solution is to trim their cats’ whiskers, but this is absolutely harmful to the cat and effects their ability to move around, jump and land accurately and is dangerous for the cat. “Trimming whiskers mutes their expression, dims their perceptions, and in general, discombobulates cats and annoys them,” Marrinan says. “I do not recommend trimming cat whiskers.”