Gain insight into the wonderful world of whiskers! Did you ever wonder exactly what your dog’s whiskers are for or what they do? The answers may surprise you!

Look closely. Those extremely adorable whiskers on your dog’s face do more than highlight her natural good looks. They’re actually high-tech doggie sensory devices, hard at work around the clock. Just last night your dog used them to navigate her way to the water bowl in the dark. We wanted to know more about quite possibly the cutest part of a pup’s face, and found all the answers from Phyllis DeGioia’s article “Your Dog’s Secret Surveillance.”

Whiskers are just one of the highly-tuned secret agent tools your dog has on board to explore and respond to the world around her. Now look even closer. See that dark skin springing a whisker or two around your dog’s nose, above her eyes and under her chin. Think of them as beauty marks with secret powers. Dr. Carol Foil, ACVD, a veterinary dermatologist consultant with the Veterinary Information Network in Davis, CA explains, “The little beauty marks are mounds of nerves and other connections that make the whiskers function as tactile (feeling) hairs. Dogs have one mound of compound follicles, but they can have more than one whisker in the mound.”

Vibrissae Whiskers Transmit Important Information

Whiskers that sprout from these areas are called “vibrissae,” which are typically found in clumps, and they have the power to transmit information to your dog’s brain about her balance and movement. Without them, she’d struggle to assess her spatial relationship to other things.

That’s just one of the reasons dog whiskers are so sensitive to touch. They’re perceptive enough to sense the change in wind flow. So whiskers are ultra sensitive, even painful if brushed against their natural direction. In fact, playing or petting a dog’s whiskers can feel like a pinch in the face. So, for your dog’s comfort and happiness, it’s best to let those sweet whiskers be. That said, many show dogs often have their whiskers trimmed, plucked or worse, surgical removal.

Having originally been bred to guard and hunt, dogs rely on their keen sense and not on their whiskers quite as much as cats do. So cat people, don’t tell the dog, but your kitty’s whiskers can do everything your dog’s can and more. While cats depend on their whiskers to gauge the size of openings before passing through and can even help direct her precision before jumping long distances and dashing past obstacles, kitty whiskers are also great indicators of feline mood. When kitty’s happy or curious, the whiskers are pushed forward. But when they’re pushed back, pet at your own risk. You see, a little whisker wisdom can go a long way.

The Scoop:

Read more about whiskers from Dog Writers Association of America member and Veterinary Partner editor, Phyllis DeGioia in her article “Your Dog’s Secret Surveillance.”

Thank you to Niki Ortiz Levy and Heylove for the photo.

Originally published July 2011; reviewed and updated July 2017.