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Does Your Cat Have Whisker Stress?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

whisker stress cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Just like ears and noses on cats and other animals, whiskers serve a very important purpose and actually function as organs, but certain situations might induce what some refer to as the controversial condition of “whisker stress”
  • Your cat’s whiskers are extremely sensitive and are equipped to detect subtle changes in the air’s movement and pressure
  • Depending on your cat as well as her dish, there’s no question that whiskers get involved if the dish is small — possibly more involved than your cat would wish them to be
  • If you can’t explain your cat’s “finicky” behavior, a trip to your veterinarian may be in order, as it may be a kidney, bladder or dental problem
  • Always clean your cat’s dishes with soap and water, and use nontoxic dishes rather than plastic that can break down, emit harmful chemicals and cause health problems

You may have never realized it, but your cat’s whiskers can grow to be quite long. Just like ears and noses on cats and other animals, whiskers serve a very important purpose. Whiskers actually function as organs that gather information about your cat’s environment.

Whether they’re strolling through grass or walking around the house in the dark, your cat’s whiskers are extremely sensitive. They send information about their immediate surroundings to their brains, not unlike television antennas. For cats, whiskers function somewhat like night vision. They’re equipped to detect subtle changes in the air’s movement and pressure.

The scientific term for whiskers — vibrissae — offers clues to how they work. Whiskers help cats relate spatially to everything that’s nearby, whether it’s food, another animal or potential danger.1

So, can a cat’s whiskers undergo stress, or as some have come to refer to it, whisker fatigue? The suggestion is a fairly new one, and somewhat controversial. So far, no clinical studies have emerged to prove that whisker stress is a valid concept, which is one reason why veterinarians aren’t buying into it wholesale.

And certainly, pet companies are marketing food dishes specifically designed to avoid the potential condition, which makes many people believe it’s an entirely fabricated phenomenon.

Where Did the Idea of ‘Whisker Fatigue’ Come From?

If you watch a cat eat or drink from their designated dishes, depending on the cat as well as the dish there’s no question that their whiskers are involved when their dishes are too small — possibly more involved than the cat would wish them to be. Maybe Muffy’s desire for sustenance overrides the uncomfortable sensation she may experience when her vibrissae comes into contact with dishes that are too deep or too narrow. PetMD states:2

“If you are noticing that your cat is all of a sudden making messes with her cat food, pulling food out of her bowl to eat on the floor, or is more finicky about her food, some say that whisker stress could be to blame … There have been reports from pet parents who say that their cats experience whisker stress and that their cat’s eating habits improved when they changed the way they fed their cat.”

If you think about it, there are areas on your body that are more sensitive than others. You wouldn’t scratch an itchy spot on your eyelid with the same vigor that you would one on your knee or back, for instance. Likewise, if you bump your shin, it may feel painful for several minutes, while you may hardly notice a similar injury to other parts of your body.

In much the same way, the concept of sensitive whiskers experiencing “fatigue” because of overstimulation may be valid; overstimulation can cause stress, and stress can cause fatigue. So if a cat experiences overstimulation in their whiskers every time they eat or drink, it stands to reason that it could lead to fatigue — whisker fatigue.

And let’s be honest, no cats in the wild have to put their face into a man-made bowl to extract their food, so their whiskers never had to accommodate a feeding apparatus until fairly recently.

How Do You Know if Your Cat Is Experiencing Whisker Stress?

The areas where cats eat may be an area to concentrate on if you want to get to the bottom of whether or not your cat is feeling whisker stress. There are a few tell-tale signs that may be indicators, such as if you notice your cat:3

  • Pacing in front of their food and/or water bowl
  • Behaving as if they’re hungry, standing over the bowl, but not actually eating
  • Pawing bits of food out of the bowl and onto the floor, then eating it

That’s not to say that any of these signs are a definite case of whisker fatigue. Barring a health issue, such behaviors may simply mean that a new food bowl or system is in order. One idea is to use plates or bowls that are flatter to the floor and wide enough to accommodate the longest whiskers on the largest cat. To help, there are companies that provide for the whisker stress conundrum.

A large mat made from weatherproof, non-skid, easy-to-clean silicone, will allow your cat to eat without any hindrances to her whiskers. If your cat seems to have difficulty drinking, a pet fountain, which offers a constant and quiet flow of fresh, filtered water, and works for other small- and medium-sized pets, can be ideal. Your cat should always be able to eat and drink without their whiskers being bothered by dishes that are too small or too deep.

Whisker Trimming (No!) and Clean Kitty Dishes (Yes!)

In answer to the question of whether or not you should trim what you feel must be uncomfortably long whiskers on your cat, the short answer is “never.” It may be more uncomfortable and upsetting for a cat to experience such a trimming than the initial problem of whisker stress, which you must remember is a theory, not a scientific fact.

Remember, too, that whiskers are necessary for your cat’s ability to experience her environment and even to stay safe. But one thing some pet owners seem to disregard is the cleanliness of their pets’ dishes, and that includes cats. Clean your cat’s dishes with soap and water after every meal. Further, use nontoxic dishes — never plastic that can break down and emit harmful chemicals and cause health problems.

Another possibility that may explain a cat’s odd behavior is the presence of other cats or other pets, and if there’s a bully among them, it could appear to be picky eating habits. Cats feel stress just like people do, and stress can cause nausea, and hence, an unwillingness to eat.

If you change your cat’s food and water bowls but still see that he or she is behaving oddly, it could be a physical problem or something else altogether, in which case you’d want to contact your veterinarian for other possible scenarios, which may require intervention. PetMD explains:

“In addition to whisker stress, there are many reasons that can cause a cat to develop a finicky appetite or other eating problems. Cats that have painful dental disease can exhibit the same symptoms as whisker stress. Cats that have liver disease, kidney disease, inflammatory bladder conditions or inflammatory bowel disease can also develop eating problems.”4

The bottom line is your cat should always eat and drink from clean, nontoxic bowls that are large enough and flat enough to keep stress off their whiskers. Cats can’t tell you if and when they’re ill or stressed out. They tend to appear generally fine unless they’re undergoing serious pain and discomfort.

As you monitor your cat’s behavior and notice that something’s still not quite right, especially if it’s ongoing, by all means, call your veterinarian. It could mean the difference between a super stressed kitty and one who is restored to their normal, adorable self.

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