If you’ve ever brushed your fingers over your dog’s face, you’ll feel the change in the hair around their muzzle and eyes. Or perhaps you have taken your dog to the groomers, and when they came home they were a little disoriented? This is because of the impact that a dog's whiskers have on its orientation. Unlike a beard or mustache, a dog’s whiskers are important for the way that your dog navigates the world. But why do dogs have whiskers? And why should you never remove them?
Dog whiskers are known as vibrissae. They grow predominantly around a dog’s muzzle, jaw, and by their eyes and are deeply set into the skin. Unlike the other hair on a dog’s face, the follicles at the bottom of the vibrissae are full of nerve endings that act as sensory messengers to your dog’s brain. You can tell the difference between dog hair and a dog’s whiskers based on how the dog responds to the touch. Be gentle, but if you touch your dog’s whiskers, then you might find that causes them to blink or flinch.
The short answer? Yes! You’ll find that whiskers are actually particular to every type of mammal, and even some fish, except human beings. In actuality, human beings did have whiskers when we were more like our chimpanzee relatives. Around 800,000 years ago, our DNA was affected, and we incorporated this into our somatosensory cortex. So we do still need to process touch, but it’s become a part of how our brain processes the world.
Predominantly, a dog will use their whiskers to help them process the sensory information they receive from the world. In general, a dog doesn’t have the most impressive eyesight, and they rely on their whiskers to help them navigate the world. When the dog’s whiskers sense small objects or things that are close, the nerves at the bottom of the vibrissae are stimulated to fill in the brain.
In terms of what the whiskers can sense, the dog can process the speed, size, and shape of objects, and whether or not they can fit in certain spaces.
Dogs don’t just have whiskers on their noses, but also around the eyes. No matter the size of the dog, whiskers around the eyes help notify the dog when to blink to save their vision. The whiskers also help your dog not to get poked in the eyes, as the little hairs let dogs feel where something is safe. These whiskers actually develop first, so from before a dog’s eyesight develops, they can navigate the world. This means from when they’re very young puppies; dogs rely on their whiskers to help keep the dog safe.
While they might seem less prominent than a cat’s whiskers, a dog’s whiskers essentially operate the same way - like navigation and safety devices. This kind of information that cats and dogs process from their whiskers is known as proprioception. Proprioception is how a dog creates and gets the awareness of the position and movement of its body within the world.
Far from only helping a dog to make its way around the world, whiskers are also fantastic tools for dogs to hunt with. Whiskers allow a dog to recognize what is moving around them, and sensing movements in the air. This allows the dogs to locate the prey, and to pay attention to the environment around them.
A dog’s whiskers can also show you how your dog is feeling about the world. Each of the little hairs can be pointed directionally - so, when a dog is feeling threatened or uncertain, they flare their whiskers. This changes a dog’s posture which notifies other dogs how they’re feeling, and that they’re on the alert. Whereas when a dog is feeling happy and comfortable, their whiskers are relaxed and not on prime alert.
When it comes to cutting a dog’s whiskers, it’s important to realize that a tidy appearance is less important than your dog’s comfort. It doesn’t hurt to cut a dog’s whiskers, although plucking them will cause a serious amount of pain for the animal. You might find that having cut a dog’s whiskers leaves your dog feeling disoriented and uncertain. The good news is that they will grow back, but if your groomer has cut them then it’s worth advising they don’t do it again in the future.
While whiskers are a common enough affair in mammals, there are also different kinds of creatures that have whiskers. In birds, these are known as rictal bristles, which scientists believe operate a very similar function to vibrissae.
They allow a bird to know their environment and the world that they’re a part of, as well as protecting the eyes from any kind of impact or danger.
The other creatures that have whiskers are fish. You may have seen the distinctive whiskers of the catfish, which give them their distinctive appearance and indeed, caused their name. These thin, agile threads are located near the mouth and are more properly known as barbels. Barbels in fish are where the creature has their taste buds, as well as used to find food in dark and murky water.
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