What purpose does the guard coat serve on a cat?

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The guard coat is the top or outermost layer of a cat’s fur, which is also comprised of a secondary or awn layer, and the soft, downy undercoat, which lies just against the animal’s skin. These layers are present on all cats, regardless of length of the coat, although there are some breeds with no undercoat, and “hairless” breeds like the Sphynx with virtually no guard coat.

The guard hairs are the longest of the three layers and due to a wide subcutaneous base, they are firmly anchored. They taper out to a point at the tip, which is clearly visible when the hair is magnified. The guard hairs are the animal’s primary defense against cold weather.

Technically, the top layer of the fur does not have the coarsest texture, which is found in the secondary awn layer, but this fact can vary by breed. Maine Coon cats, for instance, by virtue of their need to get through harsh winters, have a dense outer coat that is also largely waterproof.

Age influences the length of the guard coat as well as breed, so this layer is essentially not yet present in kittens, which explains the very soft feel of their coats. As the cat ages, the guard coat comes in, and generally causes a subtle, but more mature coloration.

While cats do not necessarily “feel” with their outer coats, this layer of hair does provide a level of sensory, spatial input that helps the cat to interpret his surroundings, especially in low light conditions.

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