Of all the hairs on your dog’s body, whiskers are by far the most mysterious. Long, thick and coarse, they’re unlike the rest of your dog’s hair — in fact, they seem to have more in common with a human beard than with a canine coat!
And to the outside observer, they don’t seem to do anything at all.
Well, they’re excellent at gathering and dripping water when your dog chugs from his bowl. They’re equally good at retaining dog drool, painting your whole house with it as your dog makes his rounds.
And some folks think that whiskers make dogs look more dignified, like old-timey gentlemen with big mustaches and bushy eyebrows.
But that can’t be all that whiskers are for… right?
Let’s find out why dogs have whiskers and demystify this little-understood part of dog anatomy.
What Are Whiskers?
Whiskers may feel longer and rougher than normal hair, but they’re made of the same stuff: keratin, a super-strong protein. They also emerge from hair follicles just like all other hair.
But a few key differences set your dog’s whiskers apart from the rest of his coat.
For starters, they’re only found in a few places: the sides of the muzzle, the jaw and above the eyes. Some breeds may lack whiskers in one or two of these spots, but all dogs have at least a few whiskers.
Whiskers appear much longer than normal hair — in some cases, more than three times as long — and often thicker, too. They’re also considerably stiffer and tend to remain in the same position, unlike other hair.
But if you could look under the surface of the skin, you’d see that they’re even longer than they first appear. Whiskers are more deeply rooted than regular hair, so they’re much less likely to fall out or be pulled out.
And if you were to look at a whisker follicle under a microscope, you’d see a labyrinth of blood vessels and nerves that far outnumber those found in regular hair follicles.
The densely-packed nerve endings make the whiskers extremely sensitive to touch. In fact, it’s believed that whiskers are as sensitive as human fingertips, able to detect the lightest touches and the tiniest details.
They’re so finely-tuned that they can detect nearby movement via air currents, no contact needed.
That’s why dogs often recoil or twitch when you touch or even get close to their whiskers It probably feels similar to the tickle of something brushing against the very tips of your fingers unexpectedly.
When a whisker is touched or moved ever so slightly by air currents, the root of the whisker vibrates inside the follicle. The vibration stimulates the nerves that surround the follicle, sending a signal to the dog’s brain that there’s something nearby.
And this motion is what gives whiskers their scientific name: vibrissae.
What Do Whiskers Do?
So what is the benefit of having ultra-sensitive feelers on your face? What does your dog gain from these strange hairs?
Well, they serve as early-warning collision detectors and help your dog compensate for his relatively poor vision (which is extremely farsighted and would register at around 20/75 on our scale).
Modern cars have sensors on their sides that detect when an object is entering your blind spot. If there’s a car approaching in the next lane, the sensors will alert you so you can avoid a collision without even turning your head.
A dog’s whiskers are his version of those blind spot sensors. Their extreme sensitivity allows the dog to perceive his immediate surroundings and detect imminent collisions without actually needing to see or feel what’s around him.
But whiskers are even more advanced than automotive technology. Not only can they determine whether or not something’s nearby, they can convey information about the object’s size, speed and even shape.
A dog’s whiskers, then, can tell the difference between a stationary wall and a rapidly-approaching playmate. And in the wild, they’d help him locate his pack and detect nearby prey.
Whiskers are especially indispensable in the dark, when a dog’s already-poor vision becomes even less reliable. They allow him to navigate the house without bumping into walls, tripping over toys or colliding with furniture.
As he moves, he leaves a wake in the air behind him. And as that wake hits walls and other objects, his whiskers pick up the vibrations and let him map out his surroundings.
Were he still a wild wolf, his whiskers would be critical for nighttime hunting, when it’s easier to find and catch slumbering prey. But even in his domestic milieu, they’re vital for finding his food bowl when he’s craving a midnight snack… and for jumping back up onto your bed when his stomach is satisfied.
Why the Whiskered Face?
Whiskers sure do seem handy, so why don’t dogs have them all over their bodies? Why are they only confined to his face?
While a fully-whiskered coat would essentially give your dog superpowers, he would probably have a hard time getting much use out of them. With so many nerves being stimulated constantly by even the tiniest change in the air, his brain would get overwhelmed almost immediately..
Since sensory information is useless if it can’t be processed quickly and accurately, your dog has a minimal number of whiskers. And they’re located where they’re needed most: his face.
Getting bumped on the side or rear-ended by a running toddler isn’t fun, but it’s far preferable to collisions involving the face, especially the eyes and mouth.
Dust and other particles, though tiny, can cause serious irritation and damage to the eyes. But with whiskers above the eyes to catch any falling particles significantly mitigates the risk.
And when he’s lost in sensory bliss sniffing along the ground, the whiskers on his muzzle let him know when he’s about the run into a sharp rock or a thorny bush.
That’s why your dog’s whiskers are concentrated around his mouth and eyes — they’re there to protect his most vulnerable parts.
Whiskers also serve another purpose that makes them best-suited for the face: communication. It’s tough for us to perceive, but other dogs use the position of your dog’s whiskers to read his emotions.
When your dog is excited, he opens his eyes wide, which elevates his eye whiskers up and out. And when he’s feeling threatened, he’ll push his muzzle whiskers forward, pointing them at the threat.
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Can a Dog’s Whiskers Be Removed?
A dog’s whiskers can be removed in the same way that you can cross the street without looking or go for a swim in floodwaters. It’s physically possible, but it’s a very bad idea.
Some people remove their dogs’ whiskers because they don’t like the appearance. They cite the messy, seemingly random pattern of canine whisker growth, often contrasting it to the neat, orderly appearance of cat whiskers.
So they direct their groomers to remove the whiskers, and some even snip them off themselves. But this has many consequences for the dogs and, some argue, is actually a form of cruelty..
Dogs without whiskers have a much harder time navigating the world and are more prone to injury. Without the extra sensory input from the whiskers, they have difficulty orienting themselves and are more likely to bump into things, trip or stumble.
The difficulties are especially pronounced in the dark. When the lights are off, dogs without whiskers move much more slowly and may even exhibit fear or anxiety symptoms like trembling, whining or refusal to move.
Whiskers are a critical part of your dog’s anatomy, and their function is far more important than any aesthetic qualities. They’re a key part of how he perceives the world, and removing them is akin to removing one of his senses — just don’t do it!
"If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two."
-- Phil Pastoret