is "Whisker Fatigue"?
by Carol McCarthy
While “whisker fatigue” might sound like something you get
from kissing an unshaven man, it is actually a condition that can affect
cats, causing them a good deal of stress. Learn more about whisker fatigue,
and how amazing your cat’s whiskers are, below.
Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
“Cat whiskers are extraordinary sensing hairs that give them almost extrasensory
powers,” says Dr. Neil Marrinan of the Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in
Connecticut. Despite their evolution, whiskers (which scientists call tactile
hairs or vibrissae), have remained as features on most mammals in some basic
For cats, whiskers are much more than facial adornments that add to their
cuteness, Marrinan says. They act as high-powered antennae that pull
signals into their brain and nervous system. The ultra-sensitive sensory
organs at the base of the whiskers, called proprioceptors, tell your
cat a lot about her world. They provide your cat with information regarding
her own orientation in space and the what and where of her environment.
In these ways, he says, whiskers help your cat move around furniture
in a dark room, hunt fast-moving prey (by sensing changes in air currents)
and help to determine if she can squeeze into that incredibly tight spot
between the bookcase and the wall.
What is Whisker Fatigue?
While cats can voluntarily “turn on” the sensory focus of
their whiskers exactly where they want, Marrinan says, whisker receptors
mostly respond to a cat’s autonomic system — the sympathetic
and parasympathetic nerves that respond to the internal and external
environment without conscious control (pupils constricting in response
to bright light, for example).
You can think of whisker fatigue as an information overload that stresses
out your cat. Because whisker hairs are so sensitive, every time your
cat comes into contact with an object or detects movement, even a small
change in air current or a slight brush against her face, messages are
transmitted from those sensory organs at the base of her whiskers to
her brain, Marrinan says. That barrage of “messages” could
stress out your cat, eventually causing what some people call whisker
However, Marrinan suggests that “fatigue” may not be the
best description of the condition, since what your cat is feeling is
probably more like distaste or aversion than soreness or actual fatigue.
In fact, whisker stress is another term some people use for the condition.
Not all feline vets think whisker fatigue is a real condition or cause
for concern. Dr. Cathy Lund of City Kitty, a feline-only veterinary practice
in Providence, R.I, questions the validity of whisker fatigue. While
a cat’s whiskers do serve as very sensitive tactile sensors, she
does not believe contact between whiskers and objects causes stress in
cats. That said, stress, for whatever reason, is a real issue of concern
for cat owners and vets, Lund says.
What Causes Whisker Fatigue?
While your cat relies on her fetching facial antennae to navigate the
world, she can’t tune out unnecessary messages the way we filter
out background noise, Marrinan says. She inadvertently finds stimulation
in the most common and ever-present situations, like at her food or water
bowl. If her whiskers touch the sides of the bowl every time she dips
her head to sip or eat, this can cause whisker fatigue, the theory suggests.
Your cat’s behavior at her food and water bowl will tip you off
that she is stressed, Marrinan says. Some signs to watch for include
pacing in front of the bowls, being reluctant to eat but appearing to
be hungry, pawing at food and knocking it to the floor before eating
or acting aggressive toward other animals around food. Of course these
behaviors can also be related to potentially serious health conditions
like dental disease, oral tumors, gastrointestinal diseases, behavioral
problems and more, so if you have any concerns about your cat’s
well-being, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian.
Marrinan says many vets, regardless of their opinions on whisker fatigue,
agree that cats often find eating out of a bowl unappealing in general
and providing a flat surface for meals is preferable.
Whisker fatigue is not a disease (and is not caused by or related to
any type of illness) and appears to manifest primarily with the repeated
daily contact with food and water bowls, Marrinan says. However, a cat
who is stressed is not happy, and if she avoids eating and drinking,
she might become malnourished and/or dehydrated.
How Can Whisker Fatigue Be Prevented?
Luckily, preventing or stopping stress related to whisker fatigue at
feeding time is as easy as replacing your cat’s food and water
bowls. At meal time, provide a flat surface or a wide-enough bowl for
food so that her whiskers don't touch the sides of the bowl, Marrinan
says. In a pinch, a paper plate can serve as a suitable food dish, he
Most cats prefer a lip-less, large flowing water source, for drinking,
he says. Ideally, cat parents should provide an automatic, fresh water
source, which cats prefer “to an icky, stale bowl of water that
might as well be from an old tire.”
Some cat parents believe another solution is to trim their cats’ whiskers,
but this is a no-no. “Trimming whiskers mutes their expression,
dims their perceptions, and in general, discombobulates cats and annoys
them,” Marrinan says. “I do not recommend trimming cat whiskers.”