What is the guard coat on a cat?

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Most people don’t realize that regardless of the length of its coat, all cats have several different types of hair that work together to provide temperature control, spatial input, and thermal insulation.

The outermost layer of the coat where the hairs are the longest is referred to as the guard coat. Here, the hairs tend to be straight, and when examined microscopically, clearly taper to a pointed tip. They can be, but are not necessarily the coarsest hairs, which tend to be found in the secondary or awn coat.

Moving down the shaft of the guard hair to the subcutaneous level, which lies beneath the animal’s skin, the hair has a wider base in diameter. This allows it to be very firmly anchored. Interestingly, guard hairs are also part of the network of sensory inputs a cat uses to interpret stimuli in his environment. A cat cannot necessarily “feel” with his fur. However, the animal is made more aware of its surroundings by the way the fur reacts to the environment.

The thickness and texture of the guard hairs varies by breeds. Persian cats, for instance, have fewer guard hairs and more awn or secondary hairs, which makes their coat feel softer and silkier to the touch. The guard hairs are, however, the feline’s first layer of insulation against cold temperatures. A Maine Coon is a good example of a breed with a shaggy, dense guard coat that evolved in response to the harsh winters of the animal’s native region.

Additionally, age is a factor in the state of a cat’s guard coats. Kittens really don’t have any guard hairs yet, which is why they’re soft little fluff balls. As they mature, so does their coat, which grows thicker and more durable as per their breed profile.

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