How do cats use their whiskers to scout their surroundings?

Cats typically have 8 to 12 whiskers on either side of their nose that fan outward from their faces. Shorter whiskers will be present on the cheeks, in the “eyebrows,” and on the backs of the legs at the “ankles.” The tip of each whisker is covered in sensory organs called proprioceptors that are pressure sensitive.

Cats use their whiskers to get around more efficiently in darkness. The structures are so sensitive they will react to the slightest change in air current. Think of the action of the whiskers as analogous to putting out your hands and feeling around as you move through a darkened space. Then imagine if your hands were actually delivering information on distance and direction before you bump into something. That’s how whiskers work.

At the same time, because the whiskers approximate the width of the cat’s body, they help the animal to judge its ability to fit into restricted spaces. If the whiskers touch the edges of an opening, the cat knows to stop.

Finally, and really just as an added benefit, a cat uses his whiskers to communicate mood in concert with the angle of his tail, the direction of his ears, and even the expression in his eyes. If a cat’s whiskers are back, his ears down, and his tail puffed out? Look out!

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