Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?
Mice use them to measure spaces to fit through and pick up on changes in the area, cats use them to steer clear of danger and help to see their way through the dark – but what about dog whiskers? Living with us humans for so long and seemingly never having any need for their whiskers (or vibrissae, as they are also known), why do our canine companions require something that is seemingly useless to them?
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about these tiny organs and why they are so important to your dog and their lifestyles. Read on to become whisker wizards and learn why your dogs vibrissae are so important.
What Are Dog Whiskers?
Dog whiskers are different to the other fur around your dogs’ body, as they are thicker, more sparsely placed in key areas around the face and are embedded much more deeply into the skin. Most importantly, at the base of your dog’s whiskers is a series of highly-sensitive nerve endings – so much so, that even a small change in pressure and touch can trigger a neural response.
This neural response is to give your pup prior warning to something that is in the way or may be about to strike their face. Given that the nose and snout are some of the most important organs in their body, being able to avoid impact is absolutely essential to their overall wellbeing – but they also do much more than that.
Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?
Many believe that dogs have whiskers as part of their genetic makeup, from their evolutionary ancestors (wolves). However, they actually have many modern-day uses that help your dog to survive, even though they are now domesticated and are usually well cared for.
One reason why dogs have whiskers is to help them explore the world around them. In the same way that babies will discover the world by using their hands, dogs use their mouth and whiskers to figure out objects around them. Those nerve clusters can help your dog to discover whether or not something is a threat, simply by allowing the whiskers to brush over the new item, which they may otherwise be unsure of. They’re also useful for simply figuring out the size, shape and speed of nearby objects.
If you’re wondering why a dog needs whiskers to do this, it all comes down to their other senses. Most people know that dogs have an excellent sense of smell and commonly believe that a dog can only see in black and white – and while the former is true, the latter isn’t quite right. Instead, dogs see on a gradient scale with some colors, but not all – and this is why being able to use their whiskers to help them see is so essential.
According to research, the vibrissae is actually an essential part of your canine companions’ daily life – from being able to source good food sources and monitoring their environment, right through to communicating with other dogs and dispersing adequate levels of hormones. They can even help your dog to detect the wind direction and help keep your dogs’ head suitably angled above water when swimming.
That’s a lot of help for such a small part of the body!
Dog Whiskers and Defense
According to Veterinary Research Communications, dogs also use their whiskers for intraspecies communications, whereby the movement of their whiskers allows other species to identify threats and alter their body language accordingly.
In a similar vein, dogs are able to show distinct body language through their whiskers to other dogs in the area. For example, when your dog believes that they are under threat, the whiskers undergo a reflex reaction whereby they become flared and face further forward than normal, toward the object, smell or sound which your dog may deem to be threatening.
Some scientists believe that this means the whiskers play an important role in defensive combat with dogs and even other species. You can tell if this is the case by assessing their overall stance and other tell-tale signs of doggy paralinguistics (body language) such as alert eyes, ears facing toward the threat and the height of their tail.
Do Different Dog Breeds Have Different Whiskers?
In short, the answer to this is “no”. All whiskers have the same basic chemical and physical makeup with the same basic design and fulfilling the same needs. That said, you might find that some breeds will have more whiskers than others, or have some extras placed in different areas around the face.
Some breeds, for example, might have vibrissae along the “eyebrow” area, while others may have whiskers so fine that you can barely see them at all. Each dog will also have a varied pattern and thickness to their whiskers, and this is based on genetics but not on the breed of your dog.
Do Dog Whiskers Grow Back?
If your dog has an allergy to food, or something has happened to their whiskers, don’t worry. It may take a while, but your dogs’ whisker will usually grow back. While one or two missing whiskers should not cause any distress to your dog, more than a few can affect their vision and you’ll notice a fast decrease in their confidence.
This loss of confidence comes not from losing their lovely-looking whiskers but rather the fact that your dog will have lost a major sense of touch and, vicariously, sight. In other words, they may be a little more cautious when moving around, as they won’t be able to navigate their environment as well as they would like.
Caring for your Dogs’ Whiskers
For reasons mentioned above, it is essential that you never attempt to cut your dogs’ vibrissae. While there are no nerve ending in the whiskers themselves, and your dogs won’t feel any pain, the confusion and problems caused by the trim can lead to more important problems than their general aesthetics. If you have a long-haired breed, it is very important that you get your dog professionally groomed on a regular basis, to keep you and your canine companion happy.