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Ask Elizabeth.


Q Dear Elizabeth, I found a whisker on the floor near my cat's food bowl Is this a problem? Will Mr. Bee grow a replacement or is it gone for good?

A I have had whiskers all my life, but I really took them for granted until recently, when I heard a lecture by first-year veterinary student Tradel Harris on this very subject! You see, I was a special guest at Feline Follies, a show organized and run by Cornell's veterinary students to raise money for a local shelter and to celebrate.... cats! I didn't think it would be fair to our guest felines who were brought in by community members and students if l competed in the judging, so I spent my time enjoying the fun and informative booths set up by the students and listening to a few presentations. Thanks to Tradel, I can answer your questions about Mr. Bee like an expert! Here's what I learned:

What are whiskers, exactly?

All of a cat's fur grows from hair follicles in the epidermal layer of the skin. Whiskers are specially modified (big, fat) hairs that grow from very large follicles in specific locations. Of course, the most prominent whiskers are those that grow on the upper lips of the muzzle. These are so lovely and are so much a part of being a cat that I was surprised to learn they are not unique to felines. In fact, mammals from mice to walruses have muzzle whiskers. Though they are nowhere near as attractive as ours, even dogs have whiskers!

Whoever they are growing on, whiskers on the upper lip are given the special name of "mystacial." Cats generally have about 24 mystacial whiskers. If you admire your cat closely, you'll notice that mystacial whiskers are arranged in neat, horizontal rows on either side of the nose. Not only that, but whiskers grow on other parts of the body, too. Genal whiskers grow as solitary whiskers on the cheeks. Superciliary whiskers grow above the eyes. Finally, cats often have "wrist whiskers" growing from the rear of the carpal area (wrist) of the forelimbs.


They look good, but do they DO anything?

Mystacial whisker follicles are surrounded by a rich supply of nerves and muscle fibers. This arrangement allows us cats to use our whiskers for communication; we can rotate them forward to show increasing levels of interest, irritation or aggression and pull them close to the face when we're afraid. We also use whiskers as extensions for our sense of touch. Since whisker length is correlated to head and body width, scientists think that we use tactile input from whisker movement to help judge our "fit" into the environment. This is particularly useful during nighttime hunting forays into the woods (or pantry), when we can't see much. Wrist whiskers are thought to provide tactile information when we're climbing and hunting.

Whisker life cycle

Hair growth goes through a cycle based on changes that take place in the follicle. Follicles actively produce hair shafts during what's called the anagen phase. The machinery of hair shaft production then shuts down during a brief catagen phase, after which the hair follicle enters its rest, or telogen, phase. During the telogen phase the hair is no longer growing, but is simply anchored within the inactive follicle. As the follicle enters its next anagen phase, the old hair shaft falls out and a new shaft grows. Scientists aren't certain what determines the duration of a given follicle's cycle. As in so many biological systems, many factors are thought to be involved, with a genetic program setting a normal range and external factors, such as daily light exposure, hormone level and nutrition, exerting influence within that range.

Whisker follicles go through the same cycle of growth, senescence, and rest as every other hair follicle. Telogen-phase whiskers are shed on a regular but infrequent basis, since each phase lasts quite a long time. You were lucky, and observant, to find one of Mr. Bee's whiskers! Don't worry: You can be sure there is an active anagen follicle working to replace that lost whisker. Love, Elizabeth

Please send you behavior and health questions to: "Ask Elizabeth" CatWatch, Box 13, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, New York 14853-6401

Elizabeth is thankful for the assistance of Carolyn McDaniel, VMD, and Christine Belleza, DVM, veterinary consultants at the Cornell Feline Health Center, in answering your questions.
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Publication:Cat Watch
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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