Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers? What Good Are They?

why do dogs have whiskers
© Cressida studio/Shutterstock.com

Written by Dayva Segal

Updated: October 14, 2022

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Did you know that dog’s whiskers are more than just a cute addition to your best friend’s face? They actually serve a few important purposes. Whiskers are actually a special type of hair found on many animals, including dogs. They grow out of hair follicles, but they are thicker, coarser, longer, and deeper-rooted than the rest of a dog’s coat.

Dogs have whiskers to enable them better understand their surroundings.

Some people think that the whiskers on dogs and cats are strange, but it’s actually humans who are the weird ones. We are one of only two mammals that don’t have whiskers—the other one is the anteater. Even some fish and birds have something similar.

Some people may call their beard or mustache whiskers, but they are not the same thing. However, a recent study revealed that humans still have vestigial muscles (meaning we no longer have a use for them, they are just leftover) that our primate ancestors used to control whiskers hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ago.

All dogs have whiskers, though their placement may vary by breed. Even hairless dog breeds have whiskers. Breeds that have curly fur may have curled whiskers, but they work just as well as straight ones.

Most breeds have some whiskers above the eyes and both above and below the mouth. The different types of whiskers found on a dog include:

  • Mystacial whiskers: Located on the muzzle, these whiskers help the dog to detect qualities of nearby objects, like their size and texture.
  • Superciliary/supraorbital whiskers: These are near the eyes and help to alert the dog to any threats to their eyes.
  • Genal whiskers: These are located on the cheeks and help the dog determine if a space is too narrow to fit through. They also help a dog to keep its head above water while swimming.
  • Interramal whiskers: These whiskers grow out of moles on the chin. They help the dog to learn about things that are close by but outside of their field of vision.

Whiskers are some of the first hairs to develop in puppies while they are still in their mother’s uterus. So, even puppies are born with them! When they are born, their whiskers and their sense of smell help them to find their mother to drink milk and stay warm. Puppies are born both blind and deaf, and they do not even open their eyes for up to two weeks, making whiskers essential for the first few weeks of life.

What Exactly Are Whiskers?

Whiskers are extremely sensitive hairs. The technical name for whiskers is “vibrissae.” The hair follicle for a whisker has a lot of blood vessels and nerve endings, making the whisker as sensitive as a human finger. Humans touch things to learn about them. Dogs use their face.

What Is the Purpose of Whiskers?

Whiskers on a dog are extremely sensitive and warn the dog that something is getting too close to their face. If you press on a whisker, your dog will instinctively close the eye on that side of the face and turn away from you. It is a protection mechanism.

These special hairs are kind of like an insect’s antennae. They help the dog to navigate around the world, especially in low light. Dogs do not have the best vision. They are generally far-sighted. They can see clearly far away, but not so much close up. So the whiskers help with the close-up vision, by giving them information about nearby objects. They can also help to navigate around the house at night.

Whiskers can prevent the animal from getting stuck in a narrow space. They also help dogs avoid things like thorny bushes or other environmental hazards. If a piece of dust falls on an eyebrow whisker, the dog will shake its head to protect its eyes. Whiskers really keep a dog safe!

Whiskers also convey emotions. Dogs’ whiskers have muscles that control their movement. Happy dogs raise up their “eyebrow” whiskers. Dogs who are scared or feeling threatened may point their whiskers in front of them straight at whatever is scaring them.

How Do Whiskers Work?

Whiskers are so sensitive that they can help the dog to understand subtle changes in the air currents. When it approaches an object, its own air current bounce back from any objects that might be in its path. The whiskers can pick up these reverberations and give information about what is in front of them. It functions somewhat like radar.

Are Dog and Cat Whiskers the Same?

Yes, both dogs and cats have whiskers that serve the same purpose and function very similarly. However, on cats, the whiskers are as wide as their whole body. Cats also have whiskers on the back of their front legs, while dogs do not.

Should I Cut My Dog’s Whiskers?

Never cut or pull out your dog’s whiskers. Cutting off the whiskers would be similar to forcing a person to walk around in the dark without being able to use their arms and hands to feel for objects in front of them. It might be confusing or scary. So, it’s understandable that dogs might have a negative reaction to having their whiskers removed.

Clipping the whiskers is frowned upon by many veterinarians and in some countries, show dogs that have had their whiskers trimmed or removed will be penalized in competitions.

When taking your dog to the groomer, always ask the groomer to be extra careful with the whiskers.

If you do happen to accidentally clip one or two whiskers, don’t worry! It doesn’t hurt. There are no pain receptors in the whisker follicles. They will grow back in a few weeks, returning your dog’s ability to navigate normally. However, it is always a good idea to take great care when using dog clippers anywhere near a dog’s whiskers.

Just like regular hair, whiskers fall out naturally on their own, and then they grow back. If your dog’s whiskers and other fur fall out in larger amounts, call your vet to determine if there is an underlying cause.

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About the Author

Dayva is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering astrology, animals, and geography. She has over 12 years of experience as a writer, and graduated from Hofstra University in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science in Music and a Minor in French. She has also completed course work in Core Strengths Coaching, Hypnotherapy, and Technical Communication. Dayva lives in the SF Bay Area with her cute but very shy cat, Tula.

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