Why do dogs have whiskers? Here's why and what to know about different kinds of whiskers

·3 min read

Dogs are the most-preferred pet in the United States, according to a 2017-18 survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association. With the increasing number of dog owners in the country, educating oneself about pets helps to care for them the right way.

Canines have protruding stiff hairs from the side of their muzzles that resemble a human beard, but dog whiskers are much more complex in their functionality when compared to the stubble humans sport. Unlike human facial hair which marks the transition to adulthood, dogs have whiskers present even during their puppy days. So, what’s the reason behind dog whiskers?

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Why do dogs have whiskers?

According to PetMD, dogs have whiskers for sensory perception and conveying emotions. These special whiskers are called vibrissae or “feelers” and help dogs sense their surroundings by sending signals to the brain.

Vibrissae are deeply embedded in the skin around the muzzle and are high in touch-sensitive neurons. With the slightest pressure or vibration experienced, nerve impulses from the dog whiskers’ follicles are immediately sent to the brain. These feelers help dogs in sensing the size, shape and speed of objects near them based on the movement of air currents, explains the American Kennel Club.

Dog whiskers are present in different areas of the head, and each have specific functionalities, PetMD reports.

  • Eyebrow whiskers – Also known as superciliary/supraorbital whiskers, they detect potential threats to the eyes. When whiskers are moved due to air currents or other external stimuli, the whiskers signal the brain to trigger the blink reflex, thus, closing the eyelids and protecting the eyes.

  • Muzzle whiskers – Also known as mystacial whiskers, they help detect nearby surfaces by proximity. These whiskers are also used to detect food, water and measure distances in dogs.

  • Cheek whiskers – Also known as genal whiskers, they help dogs navigate through cramped spaces and keep their head upright while swimming.

  • Chin whiskers – Also known as interramal whiskers, they grow from a mole under a dog’s chin. These moles are clusters of cells that “provide sensory and tactile information to the brain,” PetMD says. Chin whiskers help detect objects out of normal field of vision.

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What happens if you cut the whiskers of a dog?

Since the whiskers of a dog are vital in understanding their surroundings, having balance and sensing direction, PetMD recommends that dog owners shouldn’t trim their pooches’ whiskers.

If you cut your dog’s whiskers accidentally, it won’t hurt, and they will grow back. However, from an animal welfare point of view, plucking or trimming dog whiskers is considered equivalent to amputating a functioning sensory organ, PetMD says.

Removal of dog whiskers can cause stress, disorientation and temporary disruption in daily activities of the canine.

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Why do some dogs have whiskers, and some don’t?

According to PetMD, all dogs have whiskers including hairless and curly breeds. Although the size and number may vary depending, all dogs grow whiskers and help with sensory perception.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why do dogs have whiskers? Here's why and what to know about each kind