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4 important functions of dog whiskers and why you should avoid trimming or clipping them

Rebecca Strong,Sorin McKnight   

4 important functions of dog whiskers and why you should avoid trimming or clipping them
  • Dogs use their whiskers to sense nearby objects, feel out new spaces, and signal other dogs.
  • Never remove or trim your dog's whiskers, since this can affect their spatial awareness and safety.

One distinctive trait that makes dogs so endearing — aside from those wagging tails and furry ears — is their whiskers.

Regardless of their breed, all dogs have these specialized hairs, known as "vibrissae."

Whiskers are thicker, coarser, and have a deeper root than regular dog hairs. They can also vary quite a bit in length and color. Typically, members of the same breed will have similar whiskers, but not always, says Dr. Linda Simon, a veterinary surgeon and consultant for FiveBarks.

Dog whiskers aren't just for show, either. Here's what to know about these unique functional hairs.

What do dog whiskers do?

Most importantly, whiskers act as radar detectors, helping dogs "sense" things they might not otherwise notice.

The main purposes of whiskers include:

1. Detection in their environment

Touch-sensitive neurons at the base of whiskers send key information to the dog's brain about their surroundings.

Alongside similar neurons in the sides of the muzzle and cheeks, whiskers help dogs:

  • Sense the size of the space around them to determine if they can fit in a certain spot.
  • Provide a picture of what's underneath them, since they may have a hard time seeing beyond their snout, according to PetMeds veterinarian Dr. Lindsay Butzer.
  • Feel out where their favorite chew toy, bed, or food bowl is in the dark.

2. Protection

As your dog moves toward an object, the air they stir up bounces back from the surface and subtly bends their whiskers. This tells them they're getting close to something before they even touch it and protects them from bumping into walls and other objects.

Not only that, but Butzer says the supraorbital whiskers (located above the eyes) help shield the eyes from anything that might irritate or damage them. For example, dust or dirt particles will get stuck in the whiskers before entering your dog's eyes.

Note: If you touch your pup's whiskers gently, you'll notice that triggers a reflex that makes them automatically blink their eyes to keep them safe, Butzer says.

3. Conveying information about health and mood

Whiskers can help your pet send signals to other dogs, Butzer says. For instance, if they're feeling unsafe and need to look more threatening, your dog may flare their mystacial whiskers (located on either side of the muzzle) out and shift them forward to face the oncoming threat.

On the other hand, they may lift the supraorbital whiskers when feeling happy and excited.

What's more, whiskers can offer clues about your dog's overall health. According to Butzer, whiskers that are drooping, brittle to the touch, or full of split ends can signal a possible health problem.

Important: It's natural for your dog to shed whiskers now and then, but if your dog starts losing them more rapidly, that could indicate a more serious issue with their endocrine or immune system, Butzer says.

4. Hunting

Since dog whiskers can detect information about the size and speed of objects within their vicinity, they can be helpful tools for tracking prey.

"Whiskers can also detect subtle changes in air currents. When prey is running fast, causing air particles to vibrate, your dog will be the first to know," Simon says.

Where do dog whiskers grow?

Whiskers do not cover the entire body, like regular hair — rather, Butzer says, they're strategically located in three specific areas:

  • The mystacial whiskers, located on the sides of the muzzle
  • The genal whiskers, located on the back of the cheeks
  • The supraorbital whiskers, located above the eyes

The exact location of the whiskers can vary somewhat depending on the dog's breed. For instance, some may have more whiskers above the eyes and less on the sides of the muzzle, or vice versa.

Do they grow back?

While you might wonder whether you should trim your dog's whiskers to tidy them up or give them a more groomed appearance, veterinarians advise against it. Trimming can affect the whiskers' ability to function properly, Simon says, making your dog slightly less spatially aware.

If you remove or severely trim your dog's whiskers, they may not get enough information from their environment to move easily. So, they may become more uncertain or confused and move around more slowly in dim lighting.

"Trimming is generally going out of style even in the show world as we've gained a greater appreciation of whiskers' function and importance," Butzer says.

If you or your groomer accidentally trims them, though, it's not the end of the world. Trimming doesn't cause your dog pain, and the whiskers will grow back as long as the follicle at the root isn't damaged.

It can take up to two or three months for them to grow back to their original length, according to Simon, depending on how much was trimmed off.

How to care for dog whiskers

Caring for dog whiskers is pretty simple. In fact, Butzer says your best bet is to just leave them alone.

If they're muddy, try gently wiping your dog's face with a damp cloth and then a dry one. You can also use a dog-friendly shampoo on your dog's head and muzzle — just avoid the ears and eyes.

If you're hiking and need to wipe dirty whiskers in a pinch, Butzer suggests spraying waterless shampoo on a paper towel.

As a general rule, experts say there's no medical reason to trim your dog's whiskers — and even if you want to for aesthetic reasons, remember trimming can damage their functionality. So, you may want to inform your groomer you don't want the whiskers trimmed at all.

Insider's takeaway

Whiskers are a special type of sensory hair that can help increase your dog's awareness of their surroundings. They also enable your dog to convey certain emotions and protect themselves from potential harm. For these reasons, veterinarians advise against trimming them.

Like other types of hair, whiskers go through a growth cycle, and they may sometimes fall out naturally. If your dog does shed some whiskers, or you accidentally trim them, remember they'll usually grow back to their initial length in time.


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