What Are Dog Whiskers?

Whiskers (Vibrissae) are stiff hairs that grow on a dog’s head, typically above the eyes, muzzle, and below the chin. Vibrissae are usually found in clumps, although the clumps’ arrangement can differ depending on the particular individual. According to Carol Foil, ACVD, a veterinary dermatologist consultant with the Veterinary Information Network in Davis, Calif. when it comes to dogs whiskers – “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.”

Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers

Whiskers Under the Chin

Dogs are so furry that even the most observant of owners can miss details about their appearance. Take dog whiskers, for example. They’re usually visible above the eyes and on the muzzle, but did you know that your dog likely has a tiny beard of whiskers below its jaws?  These whiskers are particularly useful for dogs who like to dig, sniff, or do any other activity that requires their nose to be close to the ground.

What Does a Dog Use Its Whiskers For?

Primarily whiskers play two essential roles for dogs; they assist with navigation, and they provide protection.

Navigation:

  • The hair follicles at the base of whiskers contain nerves that send sensory information to a dog’s brain. These nerves provide essential information to help the dog evaluate its surroundings. These whiskers are highly sensitive to vibrations found in the air. The dog uses these vibrations to sense nearby objects. A particularly important role as a dog’s vision (especially close up) is nowhere near as strong as its sense of smell.

     

  • Cats sometimes use their whiskers for feeling their way around places during the night, but cats see better in the dark than dogs do. Dogs often find themselves in situations where the ability to sense movement is useful, and at times, that ability is even more important than being able to see. That’s where a dog’s whiskers come into play. They can function as a guide when, for example, your dog walks down the hallway towards the water bowl at 2 a.m.

     

  • “For dogs who like to dig and tunnel in the dark, it’s good for them to know where their face is located, how far it is from a wall,” says Dr. Foil. “That’s why the vibrissae are there; they let them know where their whole face is.” She adds, “Dogs can then tell what’s happening all around their face in a tunnel or going after a mouse in the dark.”

When Threatened: 

  • Whiskers are also used when dogs express their emotions. When a dog is scared or feeling threatened, they will point their whiskers forward, seemingly a defense strategy. When a dog is asleep, so are its whiskers, but when a dog is active, the whiskers are too!

Eye Protection: 

  • As well as having an essential navigational role, whiskers can also provide some protection for a dog’s eyes. The whiskers located above a dog’s eyes offer protection to the eyes, much like eyebrows do for human eyes. 

What Are the Lumps With Whiskers On My Dog’s Face?

If you examine the whiskery areas on your dog’s face, you may notice some dark skin patches. That colored skin resembles what we would call a beauty mark in humans. It’s a collection of nerves on a dog, and the thick hairs that sprout from it are not just dog fur. According to Dr. Foil, “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.”

Do Dogs Like Their Whiskers Touched?

Because these hairs are so incredibly sensitive, take special care not to touch or brush one against its natural direction. To do so could be painful for your dog. Since these hairs are sensitive enough to detect wind flow patterns, you can imagine how painful it would be if you brushed them against their normal growth direction. You need to avoid rubbing them the wrong way. Just as your nerve-filled fingertips are more sensitive than other parts of your body, your dog’s vibrissae are ultrasensitive. Whiskers respond to minimal physical input. If you were to play with these hairs, even in jest, your dog might feel as though you pinched its face, and not in a good, pleasant way.

What Happens If You Cut Dog’s Whiskers?

Given the importance of whiskers to dogs as a sensory input, usually, the only time you might fuss with them is if you plan to enter your pet in a dog show competition. However, once cut, the dog’s ability to evaluate and move around their surroundings diminishes. Having cut whiskers can lead to some dogs becoming confused and disorientated, especially if the dog has poor eyesight.

Can I Cut My Dog’s Chin Whiskers? 

Just as on a dog’s muzzle, the whiskers under a dog’s chin are crucial for sensory information. Cutting or trimming these whiskers has the same impact on a dog as cutting or trimming other whiskers, which is a reduced ability to navigate around their surroundings.

Do Groomers Cut Dog Whiskers?

Cutting of whiskers should not be considered part of a regular dog grooming session; however, some groomers may do it anyway. Discuss with the groomer first and make sure they are reputable before leaving your dog for a trim. There may be cases where a groomer considers it necessary to give a dog’s whiskers a trim. For example, if a dog’s whiskers are so long that they are poking into the dog’s eye, a small trim would resolve this.

Do Dog Whiskers Grow Back if They are Pulled Out?

Like other hair on your dog, whiskers occasionally fall out to make way for a new one, but they should never be pulled out. The hair follicles surrounding whiskers contain many nerves; this is what makes them fantastic sensory input devices. Pulling them out is extremely painful for a dog, causing discomfort and stress.

Do Dog Whiskers Require Any Care?

Whiskers are great from the standpoint of dog owners because they require zero maintenance. All you need to do is leave them alone, but that isn’t as easy as you might think, given how often you probably pet your dog’s head. Your dog won’t like it if you touch or otherwise move the vibrissae. “They are highly innervated (supplied with nerves), so if they touch something or if the wind blows on them, there will be feedback to the dog’s brain,” says Debra Eldredge, DVM, of Vernon, New York, author of the Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook (Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, 2007). If such sensory input were not useful to your dog, the evolutionary process would have eliminated these motion-sensing hairs from its anatomy. Usually, the only time you might fuss with whiskers on a dog is if you plan to enter your pet in a dog show competition. You would have four options: surgical removal, plucking, trimming, or just leaving the whiskers alone.

  • Surgical Removal

Surgical removal is the most severe option, and many veterinarians do not recommend it. Like declawing cats, you would deprive your dog of something used to improve its senses, potentially eliminating one way that it takes in information about its surroundings and environment.

  • Plucking

Although plucking offers a more temporary solution than surgical removal, Dr. Foil advises would-be dog manicurists to quell their plucking temptations. “Don’t ever pluck (the vibrissae),” she says, “as that is very painful compared to plucking other hairs. They will bleed and bleed, and that’s why they’re also called blood hairs.” Remember that the “beauty marks” the hairs grow in are mounds of nerves, so plucking anything out of that mound is painful.

  • Trimming

Similar to shaping your eyebrows, the vibrissae can be trimmed, except with more pain involved. Such manicuring doesn’t take place with all breeds, or even in every dog of a given breed at shows. But some people will still clip or trim the hairs down for a neater appearance. Your dog won’t enjoy having vibrissae trimmed, but at least trimming can be done without inflicting pain on your dog the way plucking would. If you choose this option, be careful and go slowly. “Most dogs don’t even like having their whiskers touched,” warns Dr. Eldredge.

  • Doing Nothing

The do-nothing approach is the best of all, at least from your dog’s perspective and your veterinarian. However, you and your pet might have to give up the show’s gold ribbon in favor of what you might call “a more natural look.”

People tend to think of facial marks or moles as a blemish, but you should see your dog’s whiskery features as beauty marks. Think of them as more tactile than Marilyn Monroe’s or Cindy Crawford’s famous beauty spots, yet no less becoming. Your dog’s beauty mark is attractive and highly functional, and no blemish can claim that.

Article written by Author: Phyllis DeGioia and The Dog Daily Expert

Book by Dr. Debra Eldredge

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