WHY DO DOGS HAVE WHISKERS?

Posted by Belinda Bird on

It is a common misconception that whiskers do not serve a purpose and to have them clipped off at the groomers isn’t a big deal. When in actual fact, these little water catchers and food spreaders play a very important role in your dogs ability to interact, sense danger and understand his environment. 


For humans, we use our hands to experience the world, while babies use their mouths ... our dogs use their whiskers. These highly sensitive hairs are the reason that your dog can extract a toy from under your bed with precision, or see in the dark without bumping into furniture and objects. 





WHAT ARE DOG WHISKERS


Whiskers or Vibrissae as they are known, are the long coarse hairs protruding from your dogs face. They tend to grow around the muzzle, jaw and above the eyes. These are the areas that have ‘first contact’ with nearing objects and send important messages to your dog for the size, shape and speed of nearby objects. 


Sight in dogs is not their most highly evolved trait, unlike their sense of smell which is over 40 times stronger than ours. Their whiskers help them to ‘see’ the world around them. 


Amazingly, these little hairs are some of the first to develop and are able to sense vibrations in the air that tell them about any approaching dangers. They are as sensitive to a dog as our fingertips are to us! This is why whenever you attempt to touch your dogs whiskers they will squint their eyes, shy away or move their whiskers away from your hand. 


Hunting, in particular, relies on whiskers. Assessing the safety of an area, along with where, how large and the speed their prey is moving is the vital knowledge they need to survive. Lucky for Marlo the Maltese that has just come back from the groomer with clipped whiskers, his mum will always ensure his food is in the same bowl every night and he does not need to source it himself.  


Whiskers are a defence mechanism and a necessary piece of their genetic makeup. 





 

 

 

WHISKERS ARE DIFFERENT TO HAIR

Whiskers are actually highly intelligent. At the base of every whisker there is a follicle that is directed by the nervous system. This is why a dog will move away if you attempt to play with his whiskers. Unlike his ‘normal’ hair coating is body, whiskers are constantly sending messages to his brain. 


Associated with every follicle are Merkel cells (MC’s), which are specialised skin receptors that help dogs gain information on their environment and relay what is necessary to the brain. 


Think of whiskers as similar to your own eyelashes. Touch your eyelashes and feel the response that your body automatically gives. You don’t enjoy it. When you touch your eyelashes, a message has been sent to your brain to say… move back! Also, it does not hurt to cut your eyelashes, but oh boy it hurts to pluck one of them. This is the same with a dogs whiskers. 


The function, ability and innovation of whiskers are nothing like that of the ‘normal’ dog hair that covers his body. 





 

 

WHAT ARE WHISKERS USED FOR

In research conducted by the Veterinary Research Communications, they described these hairs as being a huge part of an animal’s sensory functioning, which may include everything from helping with food acquisition to communication with different species.  Along with aggression, dispersion of pheromones, maintaining head position during swimming, and monitoring their environments. 


It is believed that when a dog feels a threat he will angle his whiskers into the direction of the danger. Dogs do not only use whiskers to communicate with other dogs, but they are also using them to communicate with us. I would suggest doing a little test with your dog. Touch his whiskers, see if he turns his head away, take note next time you are at the park and he is smelling/interacting with other dogs. When it comes to dogs, the most subtle changes to us are not so subtle to other dogs. 









 

REMOVING, CUTTING OR CLIPPING WHISKERS

Is has become surprisingly coming to cut or remove a dogs whiskers. My hope with this is that it is only being done due to a lack of education, because if you knew all of the above information and understand their importance you would never choose to cut them off.  


Removing whiskers is believed to cause confusion and disorientation for dogs as they lose their normal and natural way to see the world. 


Unless there is a medical reason to remove a whisker or two, the cutting and removal is purely for aesthetic reasons as some owners think their dog looks better without them. Personally, I think any dog can not look better than he already does… it is how he was born and ‘meant’ to be. 


If you are wondering in what circumstances, someone would clip whiskers, it is most commonly with owners that show their dogs, and groomers that use clippers over the face in longer haired dogs. 


While doing my research I came across a number of videos of people showing how to cut their dogs whiskers for the show ring. Watching these was unsettling and I thought hard about whether or not to share one with you here. But, rather than giving more exposure to those videos and people who don’t deserve it, I decided to share this one that is a bit funny and cute, but also shows you very clearly how annoyed this dog is getting with its owner playing with his whiskers. 


Meet Haru and Shiba Inu






 

 

 

DO WHISKERS DIFFER BETWEEN DOG BREEDS

The short answer to this is no! Dogs breeds have a varying degree in quantity of hair, similar to us. Picture Alec Baldwin and Zac Effron, both with significantly different amounts of hair, but both human. Our canine companions are the same. Here is a Chinese crested and a German Shepherd to show as an good example (I know you were hoping for an Alec and Zac example). 

 

    

 

 

 

 


The number of whiskers differs along with the level or normal hair on a dog. This does not mean that one dog is less aware of his surroundings, it simply means this is his genetic makeup and he has become accustomed to this since birth. It is not a new change like cutting them. So do not stress if you dog has not developed multitudes of thick long whiskers like the canine version of Fabio that you see at the dog park. 





 

 

 

LOOKING AFTER YOUR DOGS WHISKERS 

The even better news is that there is not really anything that you need to do to help your dog develop luscious whiskers. If you would like to give your dogs body some support to help nourish his skin and hair in general, you can use some everyday support to provide essential nutrients and vitamins. 


Out of everything, the key is…. Do Not Cut Your Dogs Whiskers! He needs them more than you realise.

 

 

 

If you have any experiences that you would like to share, or have any questions, please reach out to me. I would love to hear from you.

 

  

Belinda Bird

Founder & Veterinary Nurse

 


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