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More than just an adornment on a feline face, whiskers have an almost science fiction kind-of-thing going for them.

“On the tip of each whisker is a proprioceptor, a sensory organ with muscles and nerve endings that send messages to a cat’s brain and nervous system,” says Dr. Norman Brooker, a veterinarian at the Hobart Animal Clinic. “A cat’s whiskers can sense a difference in wind surfaces" and can help them when chasing prey, he said. 

Put a cat in a dark room they’ve never been in before and his whiskers can help him determine where the furniture is based on how the air currents change. See them jump through a small space and wonder how they knew they could. It’s all about those proprioceptors. Call it cat radar.

“Proprioceptors are tactile sensors,” Brooker says.

Messing with a cat's whiskers is not a good idea. Even loving cat owners can unwittingly cause a problem for their felines: Whisker fatigue.

“The term ‘whisker fatigue’ is a newer theory which states that cats can become stressed from eating and drinking out of deep food bowls because their whiskers are in constant contact with the sides of the bowl,” says Lisa Polazzi, an emergency room veterinarian at North Central Veterinary Emergency Center in Westville and Highland. “This hyperstimulation can lead to avoidance behavior, one that owners would typically dismiss as their cat being a picky eater. Since a cat’s whiskers are extremely sensitive and provide them with important information about their environment and space, they should never be trimmed.”

Brooker says he discussed whisker fatigue with the 14 doctors on staff at the Hobart Animal Clinic but at the time no one was familiar with the term.

“It could be a phenomenon that’s been around since cats have but never really was diagnosed,” he says.

“If your cat is showing reluctance to eat or drink, it is important to have them examined by your veterinarian to make certain that they are not suffering from dental problems or other health issues and once your veterinarian has ruled out a medical problem, then various possible behavioral and environmental factors can be addressed,” says Polazzi, noting that at this time, there is little scientific evidence to support this theory. But it cannot hurt to try various sized/shaped bowls to find the one that best suits your cat.

Though the diagnosis has been getting more attention since an article ran last year in The New York Times, the website, which caters to veterinary professionals, questions whether it’s a ploy by pet product companies to sell special bowls. However, even the site says shallow and oval stainless-steel bowls are better than plastic for preventing feline chin acne, a common dermatological condition affecting cats.

“Before making a diagnosis of whisker fatigue, pet owners need to check with their vet to if there are dental problems,” says Brooker. “A good oral exam will show if their gums or tongues have sores which might be preventing them from eating. It’s also important to get a good physical exam to check to see if the cat has gastrointestinal problems.”

Because cats can be very fastidious about their eating habits, some cats prefer flat, low-sided bowls, whisker fatigue notwithstanding, says Polazzi.

“It is best to offer food and water from several different dishes before settling on one that your cat likes,” she says.

Brooker says that after reading up on whisker fatigue he wondered whether his cats might have it since they eat out of small bowls.

“But since they’re overweight,” he says, “it doesn’t seem like a worry.”