Most dogs have whiskers. Although depending on the breed, they are more noticeable on some dogs than others. If you’ve ever looked at your dog, you would have noticed whiskers sprouting from the muzzle, jaw, over the eyes, and even on the upper lip.
These coarse hairs vary in density and length from dog to dog and always seem to be moving or twitching. But have you ever wondered why do dogs have whiskers?
What are dogs’ whiskers for?
Although we know the hairs on our dog’s face as whiskers, they are much more than that. They are one of the first hairs to develop on puppies and are unique. They are called vibrissae and are not only coarser and longer than the rest of the fur on your dog’s body, but the roots are three times as deep.
But what makes vibrissae so special is that the follicles at the base of these hairs are surrounded by nerves that send sensory messages to your dog’s brain—making dog whiskers much more like receptors or feelers. Vibrissae are sophisticated, sensitive, multi-functional hairs that enable your dog to navigate its way through the environment.
Are dog whiskers important?
Most mammals have vibrissae and are similar to antennae in insects. If you think of vibrissae as being a little like your dog’s GPS, you will get some idea of how important they are. Dog’s whiskers help our dogs make sense of the world, picking up subtle vibrations in air currents, including changes in wind direction and speed.
Not only that, but vibrissae help our dogs to ‘see’ objects more clearly by providing information about the size, shape, and texture of nearby objects. These exceptional whiskers may help serve many of our dog’s sensory functions, including;
- Finding and identifying food
So let’s have a look at all the ways that whiskers are helpful to our dogs.
Finding and identifying Food
Have you ever thrown a treat or toy at your dog only for your dog to completely miss it? It’s more common than you think because a dog’s muzzle gets in the way of their line of sight. The longer the muzzle, the more difficult it is to focus on objects close to it. It’s thought that whiskers, especially those under the chin, help your dog search and identify the thrown objects on the ground.
Those chin hairs also enable your dog to track objects without damaging the underside of their chin. The minute vibrations picked up by your dog’s whiskers provide invaluable information regarding the terrain, obstacles, and direction of the object they are looking for.
Above our dog’s eyes, the vibrissae help avoid potentially dangerous objects from getting too near the face by acting as an early warning system. The whiskers vibrate when something is too close and trigger a blink reflex to protect your dog’s eyes.
Although you may not consider your dog’s whiskers when you think about the rest of their body language, whiskers are a good indicator of your dog’s emotional state.
When your dog is relaxed, the whiskers are typically close to the face and swept back. When your dog is excited, stressed, or feels threatened, however, the whiskers will move forward and flare out.
Perhaps the most essential use of canine whiskers, though, is that of providing vital information to your dog about their environment. Not only do vibrissae enable our dogs to detect objects, but they also help our dogs develop spatial awareness.
Whiskers are extremely sensitive and offer our dogs, whose vision is not their strongest sense, a way of seeing the world more clearly even when there is not much light.
Do dog whiskers fall out?
Dogs do naturally shed whiskers occasionally. Despite vibrissae being different from your dog’s normal fur, they still grow, fall out, and are replaced periodically. Although a dog should never lose them all at once, vibrissae from the snout, eyebrow, and chin do splinter, break or fall out from the hair follicle.
If you notice just one or two long coarse hairs, there’s nothing to worry about. But if your dog suffers a complete loss of whiskers, it’s an indicator that something is wrong, and a trip to your vet is needed. In most cases, hair loss is caused by allergies or skin mites, but bacterial infections, immune diseases, and ringworm can also contribute to hair loss.
Even if your dog does lose its whiskers, don’t worry; they should grow back. Whether the whisker was lost from the root or broken will depend on the time it takes to re-grow.
Can a dog’s whiskers be cut?
Because vibrissae play such an essential part in how our dogs see the world, it’s not a good idea to trim them. Despite the advantages that whiskers offer, as part of a regular grooming routine or in preparation for the show ring, dogs’ vibrissae are often cut.
Although cutting a dog’s whiskers is not painful because the nerve supply is deep within the skin and not in the hair shaft, it can cause problems for your dog. As whiskers are our dog’s sense of touch, trimming them can lead to a reduction in our dog’s ability to feel their way around their world.
Without their GPS and reduced vision, our dogs have to touch something to know that it’s there physically. So removing your dog’s whiskers decreases their spatial awareness.
Can you pluck a dog’s whiskers?
Although cutting a dog’s whiskers is not painful, plucking them out is. Not only is the hair embedded deep within your dog’s face, but a rich supply of nerves surrounds the root, including pain receptors.
Plucking dog whiskers out from the root will be highly uncomfortable and stressful for your dog. The best idea is to learn to love their whiskery face just as it is.
Why do dogs have whiskers?
Whiskers provide our dogs with lots of information about their environment. The roots of the long, coarse, and pliable vibrissae are embedded deep into our dog’s skin and have a rich nerve supply.
As the vibrissae move, signals travel from nerves to the brain enabling dogs to see what’s around them. Whiskers allow our dogs to accurately measure distances to determine if they can fit through narrow spaces. What’s more, as vibrissae detect subtle changes in airflow, it helps dogs from knocking into furniture or walls, which is especially useful in dim light.
Not only that, but vibrissae act as an early warning system that something is close to the face and trigger a blink reflex if something is near the eyes. Your dog’s specialized facial whiskers play a significant role in the quality of life and how they make sense of it. So if you’ve ever been tempted to cut them, think twice.