November 25, 2020

Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?


by Stefan Gheorghe


As a result of the conditioning that we have received from cartoons and other animations, the thought of whiskers immediately sends us to, not the dog, but the cat. The whiskers have long been associated as the communicators of the mischief is about to get into just by the general movements. They are even the last to hold drops of milk that the cat drank hastily. 

Dogs too have whiskers. However, the reasons as to why dogs have these long spindly hairs protruding out of the snout is something that many people have mostly not paid attention to. Some owners even try to remove them without first trying to understand what they are for. 


What exactly are whiskers? 

As you may know, whiskers not only exist on dogs and cats. In fact, a good number of animal species have them, and they use them quite similarly. This includes everything from the land dwelling lions, tigers and bears, to the water dwelling seals and otters. 

The medical term for whiskers is vibrissae. They don’t just serve a cosmetic purpose; they actually have a purpose in helping the dog make decisions. Unlike humans, the eyes of a dog aren’t that well developed. They can see, but they get limited information from them. 

Humans also rely on the sense of touch to get information from objects they come into contact with. The dog doesn’t have touch in the way that humans are used to. Instead, what they get from the whiskers can be equated to touch in human beings. 

So, the dog will heavily rely on its sense of smell to be able to get things, but also on the whiskers to gather more information on a matter. The whiskers are thicker, longer and coarser than regular fur. Their roots are also much deeper than regular fur. 

At the base of the whiskers, the follicles are tightly packed with nerves. The purpose of these nerves is not to signal pain, but to send other information directly to the brain. The whiskers are so sensitive that any small change in air currents, they can easily pick up. 

And just like how the ears can move around to get information from different loci, the whiskers can also point in the direction of the thing that is of interest to the dog. 

The placement of whiskers is different from individual to individual. This is in great to contrast to those of a cat, where they are in four rows, neatly placed on either side of a cat’s face. 

With a dog, the front of the snout isn’t the only location where whiskers can be found. Dogs also have whiskers emanating from a small mound right above the eyes. Others can have the whiskers coming out the side of the snout, while others can be found a little aloft the upper lip. 

If you have seen a dog attempt to develop a goatee but instead end up with a few strands of hair, that is a group of whiskers. 


Why does every dog have whiskers? 

As mentioned earlier, the dog does not rely greatly on the sense of sight as a good number of humans do. In fact, the dog’s eyesight is not exactly that great. They will rely greatly on the information that they receive from the whiskers to help them navigate around dark spaces, or small spaces. 

When trying to figure out the size and shape of objects, the dog will rely on information received from the whiskers to calculate the entirety of the information. 

The whiskers are essential to the functioning of every dog. For the total area of the brain that is set aside to help the dog process touch, a good 40 percent of it is dedicated to processing the information received from the whiskers. Even if you observe the growth of a puppy, the whiskers are the first hairs that will grow out of every pup. 

One way you can observe the functioning of the whiskers is with the eyes. The dog uses the whiskers on top of the eyes as a protection mechanism for the eyes. Whenever a stream of air, or an object gets close to the whiskers, the dog will proceed to close the eyelids to protect the eye from whatever is coming. 

Also, the length of the whiskers coming out of your dog are greatly influenced by the width of the head of the dog. If your dog has a wide head, then you would expect that the whiskers would be just as wide. 

They grow this long so that dogs can be able to get information from air currents without having to worry about whether it will be able to fit through an opening or a particular space. This feature is also handy to help the dog navigate in low light situations. 

The muzzle of a dog is also another reason as to why it has an extra set of whiskers under the chin and just above the lip. The snout itself is a visual barrier for the dog. This makes it hard for dogs to see anything that is below the muzzle, as well as right close to their head. 


Whiskers as tools for hunting. 

The whiskers are what make your dog a great hunter, and for those with terriers, great diggers. As their prey moves through the air, they will cause ripples, which the dog will pick up via the whiskers. The amount of air action on the whiskers will signal to the dog what kind of object they are after in terms of size and shape. They will also be able to determine how fast it is moving. 

This, when paired with the great sense of smell, they make dogs one of the best hunters to ever walk on this earth. 


Whiskers for Body Language. 

When looking at what the dog is communicating, the very first thing we look at is what is the tail doing. We look for that wag, or the general placement to help us determine what the dog is feeling. We also look at the placement of the ears to determine what the dog is going to do. 

The whiskers are also not left behind in trying to figure out what the dog is experiencing. When a dog is feeling particularly under threat, it will also flare its whiskers forward to point towards the threat. While no definitive reason has been found, scientists believe that pointing their whiskers forwards could be part of a defense strategy for the dog should it feel it is threatened by other dogs or even a predator. 

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