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Why do dogs have whiskers?
The scientific term for whiskers is vibrissa, and they help dogs feel and explore their surroundings. These special tactile hairs are an evolutive trait that allows mammals to determine the size of nearby objects, detect threats, find their food, and much more. Keep reading to learn what are dogs whiskers, why they are important, and why they should never be removed.
Do All Dogs Have Whiskers?
All dogs have whiskers. In fact, whiskers are present in all mammals including primates, except humans.
What are Dog Whiskers?
Whiskers or vibrissae are a type of tactile hair found on several mammal species. Whiskers are different from the hair found on other parts of the body by being longer, thicker, and growing from a special follicle.
Vibrissae can be found on various parts of the body, but the most frequently studied are those found on the face. Just like other hairs on the body, whiskers are mainly composed of keratin and grow from a hair follicle. However, unlike other hair follicles, whiskers' follicles are heavily innervated by sensory nerves. What this means is that the movement of whiskers will send a signal to the sensory nerves on its follicle. This signal will be interpreted by the brain and a response will follow.
What is the Function of Dog Whiskers?
Dogs, as well as other animals such as bears, seals, rats, and cats, use whiskers to perceive their surroundings. Canine whiskers are sensitive to subtle changes in air currents and to even the slightest touch. Dogs can sense the shape, size, and speed of the objects and animals that surround them. Having this tactile organ is essential for animals because they lack a keen vision. With the help of whiskers, dogs can move around and explore their environment in the dark. In addition, being able to feel slight air vibrations helps dogs detect approaching dangers.
Small dogs, as well as rats, cats, and other small mammals use their whiskers to determine if they can fit into a small space. Dogs may also use these spacial facial hairs to locate their food just like other animals do.
What Happens if Dog Whiskers are Cut?
Dog whiskers should never be removed by cutting or plucking them. As you can imagine, removing a dog's whiskers would lead to him losing his ability to sense his environment through this invaluable tool. Dog's who have had their whiskers removed present confusion and decreased spatial awareness. On top of that, the removal of a dog’s whiskers can be uncomfortable, stressful, and painful for dogs.
Prescott, et al. (2011). Vibrissal behavior and function. Scholarpedia, 6 (10):6642.