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Are Dog Whiskers Sensitive?

Of course everyone loves a sweet doggie face and the adorable whiskers that give them some of their signature look, but have you considered the sensitivity of those whiskers?

Are dog whiskers sensitive?  While a dog’s whiskers are like hair in that they do not have a nerve supply, and therefore, could be cut without causing pain to the dog, whiskers serve a special function that provides interaction with the world, similar to a human’s fingertips.  In this respect, they are highly sensitive.

Because a dog’s whiskers are so special in their function, in this article, we will explore some of their unique features.  We will examine how they work, how the environment and things like wind affect them, and whether or not they grow back when they are cut.  It’s time to explore the world of whiskers, beyond the cute factor.  

What is the Purpose of Whiskers?

Whiskers are long, coarse hairs coming from a dog’s face, including their jaw, muzzle and above their eyes.  If you want the more scientific word, they are called, “vibrissae,” coming from the Latin word, “vibrio,” which means to vibrate.  This etymology is interesting since the “vibrating” action of the whiskers triggers a high level of sensitivity for a dog to objects in the environment. The vibrations send signals back to the brain to make dogs alert to things that could never be sensed through eyesight or other senses humans use.  Enough with the fancy words, however.  We are going to call them “whiskers.”

While they have no nerves of their own, the follicles that produce whiskers are filled with blood vessels and nerves that send a range of sensory data to the dog’s brain.  This is what makes them a key component of how a dog senses things in the world around him.  While a person may touch an object to determine whether it is soft or hard, wet or dry, smooth or course, and so on, a dog will use his face and those funny little whiskers to do so.  

Information from Veterinary Research Communications indicates that there could actually be a wide range of uses for whiskers.  This may include finding food, communication with different species, as well as aggression, dispersion of pheromones, maintaining head position in swimming, and examining the environment. 

Dogs have been observed using their whiskers for several purposes as well.  Some small breeds have been seen to use their whiskers to determine if they can fit into certain spaces.  If they are hunting, their whiskers can give them information about the size of an animal that may be hiding in a den.  The whiskers help them to find food or other objects right under their nose, since their close-up eyesight is weak.   

Additionally, whiskers serve as a defense mechanism for dogs.  When they sense something in their immediate vicinity, that has the potential to cause them harm, it will trigger a defensive reflex. If they are digging in the dirt, for example, and dirt hits the whiskers on top of their head, it will cause a blinking reaction to shield their eyes. 

Can Dog Whiskers Communicate Information?

Have you ever observed a dog moving his whiskers around?  Did you ever think that he might be trying to communicate something?  According to LiveScience.com, dogs will reflexively flare their whiskers and then point them in a forward direction when they feel threatened.  Some scientists believe this indicates that whiskers play a role in the defense strategy during combative situations with predators and other dogs.  This could be a useful behavior to recognize when you approach a strange dog, if he may feel threatened by you.

How Do Whiskers Work?

Did you realize that eyesight is not as highly developed in dogs as it is in humans?  In fact, it is estimated that a dog’s sight is six times poorer than that of a human.  That makes it more critical for a dog to get information about his environment from his whiskers. The slightest touch on a dog’s whiskers will trigger a neural response, thanks to the high level of nerves at the base of the whisker.  You can see this response if you tap the dog’s whisker, because he will blink on that side and typically turn his face in the opposite direction.

In addition, the whiskers are highly sensitive to changes in air currents (or water currents if a dog is swimming).  When air current information is sent to the brain, the dog can get important cues about the speed, size, and shape of nearby objects. Even stationary objects, like walls, will be identified, even in the dark, because the air currents that the dog produces as he passes by will be bounced back as messages to him. It’s kind of like a built-in radar system. This sense that goes beyond eyesight, is part of why a dog is more aware of things that happen in the dark as compared to a person.  Don’t you wish you would have had that, instead of stubbing your toe on the coffee table at 3:00 in the morning?

Consider this, of the areas in a dog’s brain devoted to touch senses, almost 40% of it is devoted to information received from the whiskers.  Each individual whisker can even be traced to a specific part of the dog’s brain. [How cool is brain science to be able to identify that?] That is significant brain power for a part of the body that humans don’t have, and it should be a clear indicator to us of the important role that the whiskers play for a dog.

Will It Hurt to Cut a Dog’s Whiskers?

Since a dog’s whiskers are a form of hair, and since they have no nerves of their own, cutting a dog’s whiskers will cause no more pain for them than if you were to cut their nails.  Because there are so many blood vessels and nerves in the base of the whisker, however, and because a whisker is rooted three times deeper into the skin than a normal hair, to pull it or twist it could be very painful.

Some groomers like to cut whiskers in a perceived effort to enhance their overall look. This is not recommended, as it will hinder your dog’s sense of feeling around his face, and inhibit his ability to interact with his environment in the way he is used to.  The same is true if you try to pluck out the whiskers.  In both cases, it is very stressful to your dog.  It could lead to your dog lacking confidence as he moves around, due to decreased spatial awareness.  This could slow him down, create confusion for him, and cause him to behave atypically.  This difference in behavior may include shyness, timidity or even unusual movements.  In some cases, this can even lead to fear, resulting in a short temper or aggression.  

Will Dog Whiskers Grow Back?

While you should never try to pull a whisker out, occasionally a dog’s whisker will fall out.  If this happens, it will grow back eventually.  In fact, dogs will often lose and regrow their whiskers throughout their lives.  

Whiskers will also grow back if they are clipped.  Whether by loss of the whisker, or by cutting, the rate of regrowth can vary for several reasons, often dependent on the breed of dog.  Generally, it is expected that whiskers will grow at approximately the same rate as the rest of the dog’s fur.  

Closing Thoughts

Whiskers are more than just a cute addition to your dog’s adorable face.  Whiskers have an amazing amount of functionality, and are really important to how your dog interacts with everything around him.  They provide a huge part of a dog’s touch sensation, similar to a person’s hands, and they give your dog an extra advantage in the dark when you can’t see very well.  

Without whiskers, your dog may be disoriented or even display unusual behaviors, and so it is best to never clip them.  Also, never pluck or twist your dog’s whiskers, as this may cause him pain.  Whiskers are both fun and functional.  Let your dog use them to their fullest. 

Rebecca Chesonis

Rebecca Chesonis is a business professional with a lifelong love for dogs. She has owned and worked around dogs since she was a child. She has a love for all breeds, and a particular fondness for large dogs. She loves to write articles and create videos that will help you take care of your dog and find activities to make life with your dog even more fun!

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