By Vanessa Voltolina
Canine whiskers—no, they aren’t just on your dog’s face to drip water all over the floor. Whiskers—for which the technical term is “vibrissae”—are a specialized type of hair found in many mammals, including cats and dogs.
These long, coarse hairs “play a special role in tactile sensation, helping animals define where they are in space,” says Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, DVM, and author of All Dogs Go to Kevin. Besides the tactile sensation, vibrissae have many other important functions for your canine.
Your Dog’s Sensory Experience
While human babies explore the world by picking up and touching everything (and, to parents’ chagrin, often putting it in their mouths), dogs experience the world with the whiskers, or vibrissae, on their face and snout.
It’s thanks to Merkel cells (MCs), specialized skin receptors closely associated with the nerve terminals, that Fido can better engage in tactile sensations from his environment. Not surprisingly, there are MC-rich areas on a dog’s snout and vibrissae, which makes these high-sensation areas, according to a 2014 article in Research in Veterinary Science.
According to research from Veterinary Research Communications, these tactile hairs are a huge part of an animal’s sensory functioning, which may include everything from helping with food acquisition and communication with different species, as well as aggression, dispersion of pheromones, maintaining head position in swimming, and monitoring their environments (think: wind direction on land and current detection in water).
Additionally, dogs’ vibrissae “serve as receptors for important information about the size, shape, and speed of nearby objects,” according to an article on LiveScience.com, ultimately assisting dogs in viewing an object more clearly, even in the dark. (As you’ll remember, vision takes a back seat to dogs’ other senses, like smell.)
Besides the important impact of whiskers on a dog’s tactile sensations, they can also relay messages about how a dog is feeling, according to LiveScience.com. Like cats, dogs will often reflexively flare their whiskers and then point them in a forward direction when they feel threatened, which some scientists believe indicates that whiskers play a role in the defense strategy during combative situations with predators and other dogs.
Whiskers Are Different From Hair
Hair, fur, fluff, whatever you call it (and depending upon your dog’s breed or breeds), your canine likely has a lot of it. However, it’s important to note that the vibrissae are distinct from body hair.
“They differ from normal hair in that they are innervated” (directed by the nervous system), says Dr. Vogelsang. Whether the whiskers are around your dog’s eyes, nose or chin—or all of the above—they’re still the same structure, just in distinct locations on your dog’s face.
As Dr. Vogelsang says, whiskers that protrude from the muzzle, jaw, and above the eyes, with follicles at the base of the hairs, are full of nerves. It’s these nerves that send sensory messages to the brain, according to LiveScience.com. And, considering all of the functions that whiskers provide, it’s easy to see how your pet knows to crawl under the bed to get a toy instead of crashing into the bed, or instinctively knows how to keep its head above water during its first swimming adventure.
Do Whiskers Differ Between Breeds?
The short answer is no. Like humans, canines are unique, and this extends to how we think about facial whiskers. While some dogs may develop multitudes of long, thick vibrissae, others may have few or even none.
“I'm not aware of any breed specific differences with the exception of hairless breeds of cats and dogs, which may not have them,” says Dr. Vogelsang. So, the number of whiskers on your pooch shouldn’t make any difference when it comes to his sensory experience—it just depends upon your individual bundle of dog.
Caring for Your Dog’s Whiskers
For those dogs that have whiskers protruding out of all areas of their faces, you may be tempted to give them a snip (or have the groomer cut them). However, it’s best to forgo the aesthetic of trimming vibrissae in favor of their functionality.
“Whiskers are not painful when they are cut, as they don't have pain receptors,” says Dr. Vogelsang. Still, “it can be disorienting for a pet to lose them, so don't cut them!” she added.
Some anecdotal evidence suggests that cutting whiskers may lead to confusion or decreased spatial awareness. So, err on the side of caution and leave them alone. Vibrissae are shed normally, like other types of hair, says Dr. Vogelsang. And if you already did some whisker grooming, the good news is that they do grow back.