Have you ever looked at a puppy and wondered what those cute whiskers on the sides of her face are for? The answer to this question is not as simple as you may think.
First of all, they aren't just for looks (unless you count an adorable beard) — they're actually highly functional.
Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?
You'll notice whiskers on dogs’ faces even in newborn pups, as they’re some of the first hairs to develop upon birth. They grow in clusters, mainly around the muzzle, under the chin, and above the eyes like eyebrows. They're much longer and coarser than the rest of their fur and can help your dog make sense of his environment. In fact, about 40% of your dog’s visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes vision, is responsible for deciphering information obtained through their whiskers!
These special hairs, called vibrissae, serve as feelers that help a dog navigate through the world. Whiskers are like antennae, detecting faint vibrations in the air to send sensory information back to a dog's brain. At the base of each whisker is a group of touch-sensitive neurons, so that when whiskers are touched or sense vibrations, they work as an alarm system to alert your dog to the presence of objects or other animals.
Because these specialized hairs are packed with nerve endings that provide a heightened sense of touch, vibrissae can detect even the slightest movement or vibration in the air around them. As such, whiskers help your dog in a variety of ways:
- Dogs use these whiskers to find their way around in low-light or dark conditions.
- In the wild, dogs use their whiskers to hunt prey as well as sense the presence of predators.
- At home, your dog uses his whiskers to help locate food and objects nearby, helping them decide if something is safe to approach or whether they can fit through a space based on how their whiskers interpret what’s in front of them.
Whiskers Are Communication Tools
Whisker movements are quite subtle and quick compared with other facial expressions like ears and eyes. An experienced owner can read his dog's moods simply by watching how her whiskers move! When your dog is resting or sleeping, you’ll see his whiskers hang down; however, the whiskers will quickly spring into action when your dog is active or senses activity.
If you watch closely while your dog is sniffing something new, you'll notice that the whiskers move around as he sniffs different parts of an object. This helps him get a better sense of what he's smelling so he can decide whether it's something worth investigating further.
In addition to their role in navigation, whiskers serve another important purpose: They're used for communication among dogs! Along with the movement of a dog’s tail, whiskers send signals to other dogs: If a dog senses a threat, he will flare its whiskers forward in the direction of the threat, for example.
Can You Cut Dog Whiskers?
Wondering whether to give Bubba a whisker trim from time to time? Given how important whiskers are for dogs’ ability to sense what's happening around them, it's best to put away those scissors. Let your groomer know not to touch your dog’s whiskers, too, as not everyone is aware of whiskers’ importance.
Should your dog’s whiskers get cut off, she might appear disoriented and have a tougher time navigating her surroundings. This makes her more prone to injury, as she’s more likely to run into objects and will have a harder time avoiding getting dust in her eyes, for example. Plus, having the whiskers cut or removed is pretty stressful for your pup — and nobody wants that!
If you cut your dog’s whiskers without realizing how essential they are for a dog’s everyday life, don’t panic. Dog whiskers can grow back, although the exact timeline varies as far as their growth rate.
Next time, you’ll know to leave those sweet whiskers alone so your furry friend can stay in tune with the world around him.