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Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers? Why Do Canines Need Them, Too?

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Everyone knows cats have whiskers. Even hairless breeds have four neat rows on either side of their face. And, odds are, you’ve heard a few lectures on the importance those whiskers serve to the feline species. They’re a critical part of a cat’s anatomy. But if you spend time petting your dog’s face, you might notice whiskers there, too. They’re not in rows. In fact, they seem to sprout all over. And if you’ve looked at different breeds, there’s no rhyme or reason to the placement. So what’s going on with dog whiskers? Do they act the same as cat whiskers? Or do they serve a different purpose? And why aren’t they as consistent in canines as they are in felines? If these questions are keeping you awake at night, fear not. We have all of the answers to let you rest easy.


Whiskers pop up in A LOT of mammals – not just cats and dogs. Also known as vibrissae, whiskers are specialized hairs. They sit within a hair follicle, but the roots go THREE times deeper. The follicle also has more blood vessels and nerves, which is important since whiskers are thicker and have a coarser texture than your average hair. (If you’ve ever touched one, you can feel the difference)

Inside those follicles, you find special skin receptors known as Merkel cells. Merkel cells work to collect tactile (touch) sensations. This is why whiskers are also known as “tactile hairs.” And the highest concentration of Merkel cells in dogs shows up around dog whiskers. This includes (in general) the areas above the eyes, the sides of the snout, above the lip, and under the chin. They’re the FIRST hairs dogs develop, showing up as soon as a puppy’s born.

Dog whiskers appear above the eyes, on the sides of the muzzle, and under the chin

Dog Whiskers

Unhappily, that’s where the similarity ends. Dogs don’t have the same pattern of whiskers as cats. Between breeds, the placement of dog whiskers varies. (As you might expect. A brachycephalic breed, such as a Pug, has a much shorter snout than a Greyhound) And some of the hairless dog breeds may not have whiskers at all! It depends on how much hair they have on and around their face.

So if there’s no consistency in the canine world, what do dog whiskers DO? They’re clearly not decoration if they have that blood and nerve supply sitting at the base of the hair follicle – right?

As it turns out, those thick vibrissae serve several purposes for your pup. Probably more than you thought possible!

Dog Whiskers: “Vision”

We know dogs have fantastic senses of smell and hearing. But when it comes to sight, they come up short – literally. Your dog can see the other side of the yard better than the food bowl at their feet. That concentration of dog whiskers around their face helps give them a better idea of the world close to them.

As air currents or outside pressures move a whisker, the hair vibrates in the hair follicle. The movement is translated to those Merkel cells which carry the information to your dog’s brain. FORTY percent of a canine’s sensory brain is devoted to processing details from the whiskers. And researchers have proved individual vibrissae trace to specific spots. This allows your dog to use all of their whiskers and create a detailed image of the area immediately around their face. (Which is pretty cool, when you think about it) All of those dog whiskers go to work, collecting vibrations and acting as a sort of radar system. They’re so sensitive the tiniest breeze or fleck of dust can set them off. (And if you touch one, you’ll see your dog blink)

As a result, your dog can find their food bowl without a problem. Or they can snatch a favorite toy from the toy box. The whiskers step in where their far-sightedness fails them.

Your dog gains a lot of information through their vibrissae

Dog Whiskers: Environmental Perception

Your dog collects a lot of information as they explore the outside world. They take in smells, sounds, sights, and additional information. How close is that frisbee? What’s the speed of the tennis ball that flew by? How far is that quail settling down in the grass? This is the kind of processing dog whiskers were designed to gather.

Anything moving moves the air around it. And the resulting air current is communicated to vibrissae. Merkel cells and your dog’s brain can figure out the speed AND size of the moving object as a result. Wolves need the skill when they’re hunting to help them locate and determine the size of their prey. And this skill makes many hunting breeds the champs they are. Even the slightest change in the environment translates to dog whiskers, letting them focus on the object or prey. Or it can simply help them snatch that frisbee or tennis ball out of the air with precision. Remember, they’re going to lose sight as they get closer. Dog whiskers help them stay on track, even as things go out of focus.

Dog Whiskers: Navigation

If you look closely, you’ll notice that dog whiskers (typically) stick out the exact width of your dog’s body. That isn’t a coincidence. Like cats, it’s an evolutionary design to allow your canine to pass through narrowed spaces without a problem. That handy built-in radar system prevents your pup from getting stuck.

As a dog gets close to a “tunnel” (which may be the space between your couch and the wall), air currents get stronger between the surfaces. The air then strikes the whiskers, sending an important message to your dog’s brain. Either it will tell them they can fit past the opening, or it’ll let them know things are too tight. It’s beneficial at night. Dogs can see in dim lighting conditions, but full darkness is difficult. Add in a nearby navigation issue, and those dog whiskers are a life-saver. (Okay, maybe nothing that extreme, but it’ll save them the embarrassment of getting wedged in the ottoman)

Dog whiskers help them navigate around the house

Whisker Safety

As an “ordinary” hair, many people overlook dog whiskers during the grooming process. And if you accidentally cut a whisker, you won’t cause any pain. As with any other hair, there aren’t any nerves inside of the vibrissae. However, you’ll leave your dog feeling out-of-step with their world, especially if you trim A LOT of whiskers. They’ll lose an important communication source with their surroundings. You may see them miss things directly under their head. They may hesitate to pass between objects. Or they may not want to engage in ANY normal activities. You’ve taken away part of their senses, and until they regain a semblance of normalcy, they’ll feel reluctant.

NEVER pluck a whisker. That DOES hurt. Remember, there ARE nerves at the base of the hair follicle. Your dog won’t appreciate the process OR the result.

Vibrating Around

It’s amazing how a tiny vibration can communicate so much information. Dog whiskers play a crucial part in how they view and interact with the world around them. But as your dog sleeps, so do those vibrissae. It gives the Merkel cells and the doggie brain a chance to rest and recover.

So the next time you see those whiskers arch up in interest, marvel at all of the work they’re undertaking. And maybe wonder what the air currents are reporting about you!

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Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy

Andria grew up in a pet-friendly household. On weekends, the family made trips to zoos and aquariums in the area. So it wasn’t a surprise when she gravitated toward a career with animals.

After six years working among the background operations at the Philadelphia Zoo, she gained a unique insight into the veterinary world. The vet staff provided her first lessons in terminology, the identification of medical equipment, and glimpses of radiographs (x-rays). She also enjoyed plenty of opportunities to talk with everyone, including the veterinary technicians. And they offered an alternative for someone NOT interested in surgical pathways: Namely, their course of study.

Andria enrolled at Harcum College. Philadelphia boasts two programs for vet techs, but only Harcum works with the Ryan Veterinary Hospital and New Bolton Center (University of Pennsylvania’s small and large animal facilities, respectively). Harcum’s vet tech students receive six months of hands-on teaching and experience alongside Penn’s vet students.

With the opportunities and connections available with one of the top veterinary schools, the decision was easy for her to make.

New Bolton Center: Large Animal Medicine
Andria ended up trudging through snow up to the knee and shivering in subzero temperatures during her winter semester, but she wasn’t disappointed with her choice. New Bolton provided a thorough grounding in large animal medicine. A horse-lover as a child, the experience renewed those old emotions.

And a few memories stood out and remained to this day:

  • Standing alongside a Clydesdale and feeling TINY
  • Holding the reins of a horse galloping at top speed on a treadmill
  • Nursing tiny foals through the first days of their life

Ryan Veterinary Hospital: Small Animal Medicine
Veterinary students can legally work at a practice while studying. Andria took advantage of the opportunity, gaining “real life” experience while attending class. It provided a slight advantage when she entered her three months at the small animal hospital.

However, as Ryan Veterinary Hospital offers treatments unique to the veterinary community, she continued to gain valuable experience. For instance, she spent a day working alongside their Chemo Team. The positivity of everyone she encountered – staff, clients, and patients alike – left a lasting impression.

Additional standout moments included:

  • An afternoon spent with the head of the feline kidney transplant program
  • A day serving as the anesthesia technician in their new radiation unit
  • Recognizing a radiograph of a giant elephant shrew (applying her previous zoo knowledge)

Emergency/ICU Veterinary Technician
Accompanying her Associate of Science in Veterinary Technology, Andria received a passing score on the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE). The two led to her certification/license as a veterinary technician – first in Pennsylvania (CVT) and later in Virginia (LVT).

Emergency medicine appealed to her from the beginning. The flux of ailments, injuries, and even species kept her mind sharp at all times. The knowledge required to handle cats, dogs, exotics, and even wildlife is highest in an ICU setting. When a vet tech never knows the patient’s stability coming back to the treatment area, skills and the ability to respond in an instant always stay in peak shape.

With treatments evolving at a constant basis, Andria sought out the best Continuing Education opportunities. She attended the International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (IVECCS) Conference whenever possible. This allowed her to discuss the latest wound treatments, medications, and advancements in diet formulations.

Cardiology Veterinary Technician
With the increased knowledge and experience, Andria noticed gaps in her abilities. Her grasp of cardiology remained at the basic level. She wanted to boost her skills and understanding as much as possible, improving her patient care. When an opportunity within the practice arose to move into the cardiology department, she accepted.

She sharpened her ability to read ECGs, recognizing arrhythmias of every type. Speaking with the cardiologist, she learned to read echocardiograms, picking out the most common disease processes. And, courtesy of her position in the department, she took in everything she could regarding the grain-free diet concern.

And throughout her ten-year career, she built her store of client interactions. She learned stories of heartbreak and hope. In the middle of the night, she shared touching and humorous conversations. Every moment taught her to engage with people. And the skill blended into her writing ability, capturing the interest of pet-lovers everywhere.

Check out Andria’s LinkedIn here

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