Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?

Brown dog looking at the camera

Why do dogs have whiskers? Whiskers are to dogs what fingertips are to humans — they provide dogs with the sensory means to navigate their surroundings. Whiskers grow strategically on your dog’s face, framing their muzzle, snout, chin, and eyes. These specially tuned hairs help guide your dog through their day by providing the dog with sensory input, just as you use your fingertips, or an insect uses its antenna. Whiskers help with navigation, vision support and overall safety for your dog.

How Your Dog’s Whiskers Work

Your dog’s whiskers are miraculous little sensory guides that work by sending information to your dog’s brain regarding objects in their surroundings. Dogs use their whiskers in much the same way cats use theirs. For example, dogs have poor eyesight in general, but whiskers help them locate smaller things and up-close objects. Air movement or touch near your dog’s whiskers serves to stimulate nerves at the whiskers’ base, which then triggers vital information to be sent to the dog’s brain, helping the dog discern more about their environment.

Why Do Dogs Need Whiskers?

Dogs can determine what an object is as well as its speed, shape and size using just their amazing whiskers. Dogs use their whiskers to judge whether they can fit through compact spaces. When a dog approaches an area where they may be too large to pass through, the dog uses whiskers to determine if going through is possible or not. In addition, dogs make use of their whiskers to “see” at night — whiskers allow dogs to gauge objects in their environment to avoid knocking things over and to stay on a chosen pathway. This happens when neurons are signalled by something (or air moved by something) touching your dog’s whiskers and sending a type of warning sign to the dog’s brain, alerting them that something is close by.

Whiskers also protect your dog’s eyes. When something touches your dog’s whiskers, it typically results in the dog blinking, a mechanism that helps the dog avoid harmful dirt and other debris from getting into their eyes. Moreover, when your dog is outdoors walking, whiskers can prevent their eyes from being poked by twigs or branches since they help the dog sense the presence of foreign objects.

While your dog may do very little hunting (except for sniffing out the new location of their food bowl from time to time), whiskers are fabulous tools for hunting. In addition to helping a dog find their way around their hunting ground, they also assist the dog in picking up on objects that are moving around them. This happens because when air moves, it bounces back and is subsequently detected by the dog’s whiskers. From that movement, the dog can tell the location, size, shape, and speed of the prey. When you recall that dogs have a great sense of smell, it’s easy to see why they're such good hunters (when the occasion calls for it). This may be even truer still for dogs that are bred to hunt, such as beagles, foxhounds, and Great Danes.

Your Dog’s Whiskers and Body Language

Your dog also uses their whiskers to demonstrate their emotions. If your dog feels threatened, you'll notice their whiskers flared and pointing forward. This stance is used as body language that alerts other dogs to their unhappiness, possibly as part of your dog’s defense tactics. If your dog is curious or happy, they may raise their whiskers up above eye level.

Cutting a Dog’s Whiskers

Should you ever cut your dog’s whiskers? The answer is a resounding “No!” Do not cut your dog's whiskers unless a veterinarian advises you to do so. Cutting your dog’s whiskers — even just trimming them — can interfere with their ability to navigate the world. Dogs with cut whiskers may run into things and increase the likelihood of injury. Moreover, cutting your dog’s whiskers will cause your dog stress and make them unnecessarily uncomfortable.

And if your dog also serves as your hunting companion, cutting their whiskers does both of you a disservice. Not only will your canine feel a bit disoriented and stressed with their whiskers cut back, but it will also impact their ability to hunt and locate prey. Moreover, dogs lose their confidence in their hunting abilities, since their whiskers serve as their most important source of guidance.

Some groomers cut whiskers off their canine clients, and if this has happened to your dog, don’t worry — their whiskers will regrow. However, be certain that you instruct your groomer (if you choose to use them in the future) not to cut your dog’s whiskers again. The same goes for plucking your dog’s whiskers. While cutting whiskers is not painful to the dog, since these hairs contain no receptors for pain, plucking them is a different story. Nerve endings at the base of your dog’s whiskers make plucking a painful experience. For this same reason, when you pet your dog, be gentle near their whiskers, as they can become uncomfortable if you rub them the wrong way (due to the nerve endings to which whiskers are attached).

If your dog lived in the wild, their whiskers would be essential for helping them find prey, be alerted to possible danger from enemies and even locate their pack. Your dog still depends on their whiskers, although not to the degree their ancestors may have.

Whiskers Are Essential for Your Dog

Now that you have the answer to your query, "Why do dogs have whiskers?" it's easy to see that whiskers are nothing short of ingenious by design. Among the first hairs your dog develops, whiskers play an ongoing important role in your dog’s life. So, whether you find them adorable or yearn to trim them to give your dog a sleeker look, you may as well accept them, because your dog needs them just as much as you need your fingertips.

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