Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?

When you think of a dog’s face, especially his muzzle, chances are you think of his whiskers.

You know, those stiff hairs growing out of his muzzle that rub you awkwardly when you kiss him. Some dogs also have them near their eyes. Some breeds have them other places on their faces as well.

So what all do those whiskers actually do?

Vibrissae, the technical term for “whiskers,” are found in many mammals. Like humans, dogs use their sense of touch to get information about their surroundings. Humans use their hands. As any parent can tell you, a baby constantly reaches for everything to feel it, and often, to put it in their mouth.

A dog doesn’t usually go for something with a paw: he puts his face to it. Not only does that sensitive nose give him a wealth of information, so do his highly sensitive whiskers.

These long, coarse hairs are much different from the hair on the rest of your dog’s body. The whiskers contain nerves. These nerves pass information on to the brain.

Whiskers are also very sensitive to wind currents. They help dogs tell wind direction and to sense when something is near. Water dogs can tell current direction when they’re in water. Their whiskers also help dogs instinctively keep their heads above water, even on their first swim.

Dogs also can get information for every object that is nearby, including shape, speed and size. The information whiskers provide is what tells your dog to go under the bed to get that toy instead of banging into the side of it.

Whiskers can be used in dog communication. A threatened dog may flare its whiskers and point them forward as a show of aggression. It’s also common for small mammals to rely on their whiskers to tell them if they can fit into small places. Some dogs use their whiskers for this reason as well.

dog whiskers2

©istockphoto/Wavetop

Be sure to keep those whiskers!

Does it matter how many whiskers your dog has? It doesn’t seem to. And, with the exception of hairless breeds, there doesn’t seem to be a big difference in the number of whiskers from breed to breed. Some individual dogs just seem to have more whiskers than others. It’s just another one of those things that makes your dog unique.

Unfortunately, some people trim or pluck their dog’s whiskers. There are no pain receptors in the whiskers so it doesn’t hurt your dog to cut them, but it isn’t a good idea. Your dog gets a good deal of information from his whiskers: cutting them can confuse him and impact his spatial awareness.

If you have trimmed his whiskers, don’t worry: your dog’s whiskers will grow back, and he’ll once again have access to all the wonderful information they provide.

Meet the Author: Pam Hair

Pam Hair is a pet industry copywriter with Fuzzy Friends Writer, where she combines her three passions: a love of animals, a strong desire to help other people, and the joy of writing. She has been a pet parent over the years to dogs, cats, and a variety of rodents. Currently she and her husband share their home with two guinea pigs.

10 Things Your Dog Would Tell You if She Could
Why Dog Noses, Tongues and Paw Pads Have a Variety of Colors