Why do dogs have whiskers?

Sometimes life isn’t fair. For human males, the morning routine often involves have to shave off his face fuzz before going out to meet the day, and it will be back the next day and the next day and the next day… But all dogs (not just the male ones) not only avoid the annoyance of shaving, but their whiskers serve them very well indeed. What do whiskers do for a dog? Read on, and you’ll find out.

Vibrissae? That’s easy for you to vibrissae

Yes, the technical term for an animal’s whiskers are “vibrissae” (from the latin meaning “Nostril Hairs” – delightful) and these are vital for a dog’s psychological and physical well being. They are indeed hairs, but they’re different from all the other hairs on your dog’s body in several different ways. They are far more rigid, they’re thicker, and the follicle sits far deeper in the skin, making them a lot more sensitive. 

These hairs have one very important job to do and that’s to protect a dog’s face by being an early warning system if anything gets too close. If we humans are in the dark, or in a place where things are flying around, we instinctively put our hands up to shield our face because so much important stuff happens there – sight, smell, hearing, tasting… well, dogs don’t have very good eyesight, and their favourite hobbies usually involve things flying around or being thrown, and they don’t have hands to shield their faces with. Instead, their whiskers are that early warning system. If something gets too close to their face, they’ll flinch away as soon as it touches a whisker.

You can test this easily with your own dog. If you gently touch one of their whiskers, they’ll instinctively blink and possibly even turn away from whatever side was touched. These hairs have been keeping them safe for generations, and dogs are loathe to ignore them.

There are some other uses as well. For example, dogs who have been bred to dive down holes and burrows, use their whiskers to tell them how big the hole they’re going down is – if their whiskers bend too much, they know they’ll not be able to fit their shoulders down beyond that point. Primarily though, whiskers are there to tell a dog of anything getting a little too close to their face for comfort.

So there you have it – whiskers aren’t just for Victorian men and cats, our dogs enjoy their benefit, too!

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