Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?

Have you ever looked at your dog up close and wondered what their whiskers do? It’s certainly not a common physical feature that many people automatically attribute to dogs, but they play an essential sensory role in your dog’s life. 

So, why do dogs have whiskers? There are many reasons, ranging from sensory needs to protection. 

What Are Dog Whiskers?

Dog whiskers, also known as vibrissae, are the deeply embedded and stiff hairs that frame a dog’s muzzle. These thick and coarse hairs can also show up above their eyes or on their chin.

Dogs aren’t the only animals with vibrissae, either. Although whiskers are commonly associated with cats, they are present in most mammals.

These hairs are crucial to a dog’s sensory world because they produce intense and informational neural responses when touched. This reaction is due to the nerves and blood vessels that surround the follicles that hold the whiskers.

To get a better idea of the level of sensitivity that a whisker has, compare them to the level of sensitivity that humans have inside their fingertip nerves.

Humans can get an idea of whether something is potentially dangerous, edible, or alive just by feeling it with our hands.

A dog’s whiskers work similarly. One tiny change in the air can touch a dog’s whisker, and the neurons at the whisker follicle are activated and send a signal to the dog’s brain, alerting them of the object’s speed, size, and shape. 

Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?

By sensing subtle changes in air currents, whiskers help to guide dogs through daily activities by providing them with extra-sensory input that affects how the dog will react in different situations. 

Used for Protection 

Although dogs have excellent hearing and smelling senses, their eyesight is less than perfect. Dogs are less likely to see threats before they hear or smell them.

Even with these exceptional senses, just hearing and smelling threats would not be enough to allow them to defend themselves against them effectively. 

By sensing the minute changes in vibrations of the air around them, dogs can tell the size and speed of what’s around them. 

This sensory ability allows them to have valuable extra seconds that could potentially save them from a threat by giving them the time needed to prepare to fight, run, or tense their muscles.

It’s no coincidence that most of a dog’s whiskers sit at different spots around their face. Like all organisms, the brain is the most vital organ in the body. Having more sensitive regions around their heads allow for dogs to protect their skulls better, and in turn, their brains.

For example, if dirt were to fly and touch a whisker, the dog would blink in response to protect its eyes, which otherwise might not have seen the flying particles.

If you’ve ever seen your dog be jolted awake from a deep sleep if your foot touches its whiskers, this is another example of whiskers playing a crucial part in your dog’s defense mechanisms.

Brings Spatial Awareness 

A dog’s spatial awareness is also improved with whiskers. When a dog’s whiskers brush against an object or a wall, they get an idea of whether they can fit through it or not.

Small dogs use this whisker benefit quite often, as they are constantly navigating a world that is built to be too big for them.

By sensing whether they can squeeze through space or not, dogs can quickly escape possibly dangerous situations.

Gives Hunting Benefits

Not only do whiskers protect your dog, but they also give them added predator benefits. The vibrations that the whiskers sense also tell the dog the speed of the moving object.

In densely wooded environments where visibility is low, dogs can sense prey through their whiskers and let their smelling and hearing senses take care of the rest of the hunt.

Used as Expressive Features 

Dogs also use whiskers to convey emotions, similar to how humans use eyebrows to display an expression.

You can tell what your dog is feeling based on their whiskers’ change in position and rigidity when they feel the emotion.

If they feel threatened, a dog’s whiskers will flare and point them toward the threat. This action can warn other dogs that this dog feels threatened and to stay away from them.

Additionally, most dog owners can tell when their dog is calm by the relaxed state their whiskers are in.

Should You Cut Your Dog’s Whiskers?

Although it is not uncommon in competitive dog show environments to see dog whiskers being cut to fit a particular look, this is not recommended due to its effect on your dog.

Cutting your dog’s whiskers will not cause them any physical pain but will affect how they sense the world around them.

The cut whiskers will have significantly less sensitivity to outside stimuli, which means your dog will not be as responsive to the triggers as they would be with full-bodied whiskers.

About 40% of your dog’s brain’s sensory areas align with parts of their body that have whiskers. This stat explains why cutting whiskers can seriously affect their spatial awareness.

Remember that though cutting your dog’s whiskers will not be painful, plucking or pulling on them will be painful. This pain is due to the large number of nerves located at the follicle underneath each whisker.

Next time you’re at the groomer’s, be sure to tell the groomer to avoid cutting any whiskers to help your dog sense the world around it the best it can. 

The Bottom Line

A dog’s whiskers provide a ton of information to your dog’s brain through just slight changes in the environment. This fantastic physical attribute is like a second pair of eyes to your dog and should be treated with care.

Whiskers shouldn’t need any additional maintenance other than you and your groomer being aware that they play a significant role in a dog’s life. 

The next time you pet your pup, take a look at their whiskers. They’re one of your pet’s most essential and most extraordinary sensory features.