Why You Should Never Trim Your Dog's or Cat's Whiskers

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cat whiskers

Story at-a-glance -

  • Unlike human facial hair, the whiskers sprouting from your dog’s or cat’s face serve a very important function and should never be trimmed or cut
  • Dog and cat whiskers, aka vibrissae, are sensory organs that transmit important information to your pet’s brain; whisker trims are the equivalent of temporary amputations
  • Cats may experience bowl or dish aversion from food or water bowls that are too small or deep, causing the whiskers to rub against the sides of the bowl during eating or drinking

Because as humans we tend to view body hair as a part of our anatomy that can or should be cut or shaved off, or endlessly fiddled with (e.g., combed, brushed, washed, dyed, curled, straightened, styled, etc.), we tend to feel similarly about the hair that sprouts all over our pets’ bodies. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Body hair, regardless of the body it grows on, is there for a reason. And while modern lifestyles make it possible for humans to do pretty much whatever they like with their own hair with little or no consequence, this isn’t the case with dogs and cats — especially when it comes to the hair on their furry little faces.

Dog Whiskers Are Sensory Organs

Your dog’s whiskers — aka tactile hairs, aka sinus hairs, aka vibrissae — are actually sensory organs, meaning they serve a purpose beyond being adorable. Each one of these long, stiff, widely spaced hairs grows from its own specialized hair follicle.

These unique follicles are implanted three times as deeply as ordinary hair follicles and contain nerve endings that are sensitive to both touch and vibration (“vibrissa” derives from the Latin word “vibrio,” meaning “to vibrate”).1 The structure of dog whiskers is very similar to cat whiskers (more about cat whiskers shortly).

According to a recently published study from Germany, there is “no scientific evidence of this organ being underdeveloped or regressed in the domestic dog.”2 In other words, domestication hasn’t rendered dog whiskers irrelevant. They serve the same purpose in pet dogs as in wild dogs. According to the study:

“… it is evident that dogs react sensitively to the touch of their vibrissae and that these hairs fulfill protective functions including the protection of the eyes. Further functions are discussed in the literature. Anatomically and physiologically it is proven that tactile hairs are part of a sensory organ and clearly differ from the body fur. Without them, the sensory organ is not functional.”

Whiskers Transmit Important Information to Your Dog’s Brain

Interestingly, it’s not the tactile hairs themselves that feel sensations. According to Andrea Cooper, writing for the Pet Massage Training & Research Institute:

“When the whisker senses a nearby object, the vibrations from it travel down the hair to the follicle.3 The tactile hair follicle has a blood-filled cavity between the outer and the inner layers of the follicle lining, or dermal sheath.

While the upper portion of the sinus contains only blood and is not composed of connective tissue, the lower portion contains trabeculae, which are strands of connective tissue that bridge the cavity to constitute part of its framework.

Many nerves pierce the external dermal sheath and branch into the trabeculae and inner dermal sheath. Vibrations picked up by the hair are then magnified by the blood-filled sinus and transferred by the nerves to provide the brain with specific information about the dog’s surroundings.4

Because of these vibrissae, dogs do not even have to make physical contact with surfaces to know where they are. The vibrissae serve as an early warning device that helps prevent colliding with walls and objects, and [they also] keep approaching objects from damaging the dog’s face and eyes.5

Vibrissae are sensitive to vibrations in air currents, as well. As air moves around the dog, the vibrissae vibrate. These vibrations are translated by the dog’s brains into an awareness of the presence, size and shape of nearby objects without having even touched them.6

Studies have observed how a dog’s brain responds to its sense of feeling. Of the areas of the brain that register touch, nearly 40 percent of that area is solely touch information from the face. Of that 40 percent, an extremely large part comes from the upper jaw, where the vibrissae are located.

Further, it has been recorded that each one of the individual vibrissae can be mapped to a specific location in the dog’s brain, suggesting the importance of the sensory information being received from these hairs.”

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Whisker Trimming is a ‘Temporary Amputation’

The German study co-authors conclude that cutting dogs’ tactile hairs causes considerable harm and should be prohibited:

“Trimming the vibrissae is therefore not at all a cosmetic measure in the context of grooming but constitutes a temporary amputation. By disabling a sensory organ, the animal suffers from temporary physical damage representing considerable harm. Thus, cutting the tactile hairs of the domestic dog for esthetic reasons is prohibited according to German, Austrian, and Swiss Animal Welfare Act.”

Whisker cutting has traditionally been routine with certain show dog breeds, but the situation appears to be improving. According to Cooper:

“Dogs have frequently had their vibrissae cut for show performance over the years to give their heads a smoother look. But cutting these hairs reduces the dogs’ ability to fully observe their close surroundings.7 There have been several reports of show dogs repeatedly encountering eye and facial injuries upon having their vibrissae cut, only to have no more incidents upon the hairs’ regrowth.8

Removal itself, though, is not painful to the dog, since the hair’s nerve endings are far below the surface of the skin. Presently, some breed standards are changing the practice of cutting dogs’ tactile hair and are even prohibiting the practice as it falls out of favor.”9

Do Cats Experience ‘Whisker Fatigue’?

If you’ve never heard of this relatively new phenomenon, you’re not alone. In fact, since no scientific studies have been done to test the premise, many veterinarians aren’t convinced it’s a thing. Some even suspect it’s an invention of pet product companies to sell cat food and water bowls designed to prevent the “problem.”

But with that said, kitty whiskers do tend to brush the sides of smaller food and water bowls, and there’s no way for us to know how that feels to the cat, especially given the sensitivity of vibrissae.

“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,” writes veterinarian Dr. Sarah Wooten in PetMD.10

The concept of sensitive whiskers experiencing “fatigue” because of overstimulation may be valid, since overstimulation can cause stress, and stress can cause fatigue. So, if a kitty experiences overstimulation of her whiskers every time she eats or drinks, it could reasonably lead to fatigue. After all, cats in the wild don’t eat from bowls.

Some Dogs May Also Suffer Whisker Stress

Earlier this year I had a canine patient whose owner scheduled an appointment because the dog suddenly stopped eating her supplements. When I questioned the owner if anything had changed about how and when she administered the supplements, she said she used to mix her dog’s supplements in the food but recently she decided to mix them in bone broth and a little ground meat, separate from her meals.

The owner was using a very small “berry bowl” to offer the supplement concoction to her dog, who became hesitant to eat the mixture almost immediately. Transferring the mixture to a larger and wider bowl fixed the problem immediately, so many animals may be sensitive to eating from small bowls that don’t account for adequate “whisker room”.

How to Remedy Possible Whisker Fatigue

As you might guess, kitties (and some dogs) display possible whisker stress around their food and water bowls, so that’s the area you’ll want to monitor.

Look for signs such as stalling, waiting or pacing in front of the bowls; giving every indication he’s hungry including standing over the bowl, but not eating; and moving food from the bowl to the floor to eat it. Some animals may attempt to lick food from the edges of the bowl without having to put their face or head into the bowl.

Of course, there could be other reasons for this behavior, some of which may require a veterinary visit. But if your animal seems healthy and is behaving normally otherwise, try putting his food on a plate or in a wider, flatter bowl that has no chance of touching his whiskers as he eats.

It’s also important to clean your pet’s bowls with soap and water after each meal, and use non-toxic dishes — never plastic that can break down and leach harmful chemicals into food or water. Plastic residues can also change the flavor of water, making your cat or dogl want to drink less.

If you change your pet’s food and water bowls but he continues behaving oddly, it could be a physical problem or something else altogether, in which case you’ll want to contact your veterinarian.

“In addition to whisker stress, there are many reasons that can cause a cat to develop a finicky appetite or other eating problems,” writes Wooten. “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.”

The bottom line: 1) cats and dogs should always eat and drink from clean, non-toxic bowls that are large enough and flat enough not to interfere with their whiskers, and 2) never, ever trim your pet’s whiskers.