Whisker Fatigue: Does It Really Happen?

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“Whisker fatigue” is a topic that has split the online feline community.

The Big Question Is Simple: Does This Condition Occur At All?

If you ask most veterinary surgeons about whisker fatigue, they will look at you with bemusement: it is not a condition that can be found in standard veterinary textbooks, nor has it been reported at veterinary conferences or in journals. The condition was featured in the New York Times in 2017, causing bemusement in the veterinary profession at the time. 

Nonetheless, some cat carers, and other people who know a lot about cats believe that whisker fatigue exists, so this is a topic that deserves discussion and explanation.

To summarise the concept: whisker fatigue is claimed to occur when a cat is fed in a small, high-sided cat food bowl that causes the cat’s whiskers to make contact with the sides of the dish when the cat eats.

whisker fatigue example of cat eating from a bowl

The hypothesis of “whisker fatigue” says that cats may become uncomfortable when eating from bowls that touch their sensitive whiskers.

The idea is that the overstimulation of the whiskers may discourage cats from eating from such bowls, and that this may cause some cats to be fussy eaters.

And that if they are fed from special, wider, lower-sided bowls that do not impact on their whiskers, they will stop being so fussy. Whether the cat’s food is kibble or wet food, the same principles apply. And the same theory applies to the type of water dish used.

The problem is that there is no proof whatsoever for the existence of this condition: it is a theoretical issue only, and most veterinarians doubt that it even exists.

This article aims to discuss the topic in detail, so that at least cat carers know what people are talking about when they mention “whisker fatigue”.

Causes of “Whisker Fatigue”

Whiskers (also known as “vibrissae”) are a specialised type of thick hairs: they are tougher, bristly, long hairs, with dense gatherings of nerve endings at their base, as well as specialised nerve cells which are sensory organs called “proprioception receptors”.

These receptors detect the most minor, finest movements of the whiskers, allowing cats to gain information via their nervous system about their surroundings. 

Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?

Why do cats have whiskers image of cat squeezing through doorway

Cats use their whiskers to help them navigate and interpret the world around them. For example, they help your cat to determine whether or not they can squeeze through a tight space.

At the most basic level, whiskers allow cats to judge the width of openings before cats move through tight spaces. At the subtlest level, whiskers may allow cats to detect air currents that let them know about the presence of prey when hunting.

There is some degree of mystery about the precise nature of whisker physiology, and it’s an area where more research is likely in future. For example, dynamic MRI scans of cats’ brains may allow visualisation of areas of activation when whiskers are stimulated in different ways.

The theory behind “whisker fatigue” is that at mealtimes, if a cat has to eat from a narrow, high-sided deep bowl, the whiskers may be overstimulated by the sides of the bowl, and that this may give cats an unpleasant sensation which deters them from eating. Some refer to this as “whisker stress”. However, this remains an unproven theory rather than veterinary-endorsed reality.

Signs of Whisker Fatigue

When cats are fussy eaters, and their food bowl is a high-sided narrow bowl, some cat owners claim that their pets are deterred from eating by “whisker fatigue”. And the same could be said to apply to a water bowl.

However, the fact that a very high percentage of cats eat and drink from such bowls very happily casts doubt on the validity of this claim. That said, it is possible that some cats do prefer not to have their whiskers impact with bowl surfaces, and this preference, rather than “whisker fatigue”, may, in theory, mean that some cats do prefer wider, lower-sided bowls.

Conclusion

Most veterinarians doubt the existence of a syndrome known as “whisker fatigue”, but it is important that pet owners understand the structure and function of cat whiskers, and that they treat their cats’ whiskers with respect. And, yes, it is possible that some cats have particularly sensitive whiskers. 

It makes sense that good cat care includes observing cats’ eating habits carefully, and if they seem to be averse to eating from narrow, high-sided food bowls, perhaps owners should consider offering food in a different type of receptacle such as a “bowl for whisker relief”, and allowing them to drink from a water fountain,  even if the theory behind this is highly debatable. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I know if my cat has whisker fatigue?

It is true that if any cat becomes a fussy eater, then an investigation should be carried out to find out the reason. If you see your cat pawing at their face while eating, it's certainly worth searching for a reason. There are many possible causes, including mouth pain (teeth, gums and tongue should be inspected), underlying illness (many diseases cause a reduced appetite) and unappetising food (cats can, simply, be fussy eaters). If you have checked all these possibilities, then it remains a possibility that your cat may not like having their whiskers stimulated by the edges of the bowl, so it could be worth trying feeding from a different type of feeding dish.

How do you stop whiskers from fatigue?

There is no evidence to suggest that whiskers can become “fatigued”, but if you feel that your cat does not like a narrow, high-sided bowl, then you may wish to try feeding them from a wider, lower sided bowl (so-called "whisker-friendly" food bowls such as Dr Catsby's bowls)  that does not allow any contact with their whiskers. You may also wish to allow them to drink from a water fountain rather than the standard type of stainless steel cat bowls. 

Can dogs get whisker fatigue?

Dogs do have whiskers, but they are much shorter and less sensitive than cats’ whiskers. So it’s highly unlikely that their whiskers will come into contact with the sides of their feeding dishes. 

What happens when you cut off a cat's whiskers?

Whiskers have the same type of structure as hair, so there is no pain reaction if they are cut. However, it is possible that there may be overstimulation of the proprioceptor receptors if they are cut, and this may cause some discomfort. Furthermore, cats need their whiskers for daily activities, helping them to make judgements when running, jumping, hunting, playing, and interacting with other cats. So it is generally thought to be unfair to remove cats’ whiskers.

Pete Wedderburn DVM

About Pete Wedderburn DVM

Dr Pete Wedderburn qualified as a vet from Edinburgh in 1985 and has run his own 4-veterinarian companion animal practice in County Wicklow, Ireland, since 1991. Pete is well known as a media veterinarian with regular national tv, radio and newspaper slots, including a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph since 2007. Pete is known as "Pete the Vet" on his busy Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages, regularly posting information on topical subjects and real-life cases from his clinic. He also write a regular blog at www.petethevet.com. His latest book: “Pet Subjects”, was published by Aurum Press in 2017.

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