Somebody once said, “A cat’s body is a study in perfection.”
Although attributed to an anonymous cat lover, it’s a sentiment felt by just about everyone who appreciates the form and function of the average feline, whether wild or domestic.
From its multi-directional ears capable of pinpointing prey from 20 yards away to eyes that see clearly at a fraction of light required by the human eye to muscular haunches and tail designed for both balance and power, it’s not surprising some car manufacturers have borrowed feline names that embody a cat’s sleek and powerful physique. Think Jaguar and Pantera.
Unlike the multitudes of bells and whistles available on one of these exotic cars that require a 40-pound instruction manual in three languages, a cat’s body is built strictly for survival that leaves no room for useless accessories. Bonus: that perfectly designed body is also a thing of great beauty.
Cats embody a number of physiological attributes that provide them with astounding athletic and hunting abilities, but they also possess a number of touchy-feely sensory organs such as whiskers. Whiskers, also known as “vibrissae hairs,” fan out from the muzzle in numbers from eight to 12 per side and extend beyond the width of the cat’s face. Shorter whiskers appear above the eyes, on the chin and on the back of the front legs, just above the foot.
It’s commonly believed facial whiskers help a cat feel its way through dark or restricted spaces through “proprioceptors,” a sensory organ located at the tip of each whisker that’s highly sensitive to pressure.
As the cat moves through low-light conditions, those receptors create a sensation in the cat to help him gauge the presence, size and even shape of objects. They also detect slight changes in temperature and air current, which give the cat a further heads-up to avoid collision. While navigating through an opening, the whiskers fan out to their full width and, if they touch the sides of the opening, the cat knows that his body is too large to fit through.
The whiskers above the eyes work like headlights on a miner’s hard hat. Those amazing receptors are the cat’s first clue he’s about to collide with an object.
Both muzzle and eyebrow whiskers also work much like self-guided missile systems, alerting the hunting cat to its prey’s body outline, telling the cat exactly where to bite to kill. A cat with damaged whiskers is likely to bite in the wrong location, putting itself at risk of self-injury if the prey manages to fight back.
Whiskers on the face make sense, but what about those found on the back of the forelegs? Cat behaviourists theorize that since cats are far-sighted, captured prey may be too close for the cat to see it. The leg whiskers help him determine the prey’s size, position and shape and also detect any escape attempts.
Those fancy proprioceptors are also part of a cat’s mode of communicating to other animals and people, and to indicate their mood. When a cat is walking, the whiskers are fanned out to their full length. An angry or threatened cat will pull the whiskers back and close to his face. A cat who is feeling content and lazy will often push them forward in a relaxed way.
Now that we know a cat’s whiskers are highly sensitive, it’s understandable most cats are adverse to us humans messing around with them. Manipulating or touching a cat’s whiskers can cause him discomfort or irritation.
Which brings us to the subject of trimming a cat’s whiskers.
No, no, no – do not cut those proprioceptors! Without those super-tactile hairs, cats can become disoriented and frightened. They hail from a long line of felines who depend on those whiskers for their survival. To trim them can cause great distress. They grow back, but at a slow pace over several months.
In the meantime, kitty feels insecure and victimized, which is in direct opposition to the average cat’s inherent self image.