While “whisker fatigue” might sound like something you get from kissing an unshaven man, it is actually a condition that can affect cats, causing them a good deal of stress. Learn more about whisker fatigue, and how amazing your cat’s whiskers are, below.
Cat whiskers are extraordinary sensing hairs that give them almost extrasensory powers. Despite their evolution, whiskers (which scientists call tactile hairs or vibrissae), have remained as features on most mammals in some basic form.
For cats, whiskers are much more than facial adornments that add to their cuteness. They act as high-powered antennae that pull signals into their brain and nervous system. The ultra-sensitive sensory organs at the base of the whiskers, called proprioceptors, tell your cat a lot about her world. They provide your cat with information regarding her own orientation in space and the what and where of her 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.
While cats can voluntarily “turn on” the sensory focus of their whiskers exactly where they want, 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).
You can think of whisker fatigue as an information overload that stresses out your cat. Because whisker hairs are so sensitive, every time your cat comes into contact with an object or detects movement, even a small change in the air current or a slight brush against her face, messages are transmitted from those sensory organs at the base of her whiskers to her brain. That barrage of “messages” could stress out your cat, eventually causing what some people call whisker fatigue.
However, “fatigue” may not be the best description of the condition, since what your cat is feeling is probably more like distaste or aversion than soreness or actual fatigue. In fact, whisker stress is another term some people use for the condition.
While your cat relies on her fetching facial antennae to navigate the world, she can’t tune out unnecessary messages the way we filter out background noise. She inadvertently finds stimulation in the most common and ever-present situations, like at her food or 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 suggests.
Your cat’s behavior at her food and water bowl should tip you off that she is stressed. Some signs to watch for include 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. Of course, 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.
Many veterinarians agree that cats often find eating out of a bowl unappealing in general and providing a flat surface for meals is preferable.
Whisker fatigue is not a disease (and is not caused by or related to any type of illness) and appears to manifest primarily with the repeated daily contact with food and water bowls. However, a cat who is stressed is not happy, and if she avoids eating and drinking, she might become malnourished and/or dehydrated.
Luckily, preventing or stopping stress related to whisker fatigue at feeding time is as easy as replacing your cat’s food and water bowls. At mealtime, provide a flat surface or a wide-enough bowl for cat food so that her whiskers don't touch the sides of the bowl. 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. Ideally, cat parents should provide an automatic, freshwater 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.”
Some cat parents believe another solution is to trim their cats’ whiskers, but this is a definite no-no. Trimming whiskers mutes their expression dims their perceptions, and in general, discombobulates cats and annoys them.
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