By Tracy Ahrens
curly or straight,
cat whiskers perform many roles,
such as stirring milk on a plate.
As cocktail sticks they serve pate.
As antennae they detect drafts.
They tickle human noses as morning alarms,
collect cobwebs we cannot see,
measure widths in which to slither,
bloom with love, or with fear – retreat.
Polished from months of sandpaper-tongue scrubbings,
they wave broken tips from battles won.
Sleek pins from furry cushions are cast
becoming our four-leaf-clover finds.
Perhaps they serve as string for a fairy’s fiddle,
the ones that are left behind.
I laugh when I clean at my mom’s house. While vacuuming or doing laundry I find cat whiskers. They are not common white whiskers, but black whiskers from the cheeks of her seven black cats.
I find them tucked among their bedding, scattered on the carpet and stuck in scratching post carpet fibers.
To me these are rare discoveries like a gold nugget or a four leaf clover.
I’m still waiting for the day that I find a corkscrew curly one from my mom’s tom cat, Tiger. His include dark colored roots and white tips.
At my house I only find white whiskers from my three cats (a tabby and white, and two black and whites).
Studying felines you will notice that some black cats have one white whisker, a tabby may have two-toned whiskers, or a Persian may have super long whiskers.
Case in point, my black and white cat, Jack. At the time of writing this he has developed one white whisker above each eye on a bed of black fur. They look like antennae and earned him the temporary nickname of “caterpillar.”
Sometimes my mom can only tell her black cats apart by one that sports a solitary white whisker among a bush of black ones. When that white whisker is shed, it’s a guessing game at a glance which cat is which.
When I find shed whiskers at home I can usually tell which of my cats it came from, and sometimes if it’s a really short one I know it came from the muzzle of my dog, Trucker.
Luck, sentiment, and art
When you think of all the places whiskers have been, and what they have rubbed against it makes you want to pick them up, tickle your face with the tip and examine the pin-like end that once rested in your kitty’s cheek.
Reading articles on the Internet about whiskers, I see that I’m not the only one who smiles over these spindly treasures.
Some people believe that if you find a whisker you should keep it for good luck.
Legion of Pagans website mentions a woman who has a cat whisker collection and is a millionaire.
A source called The Arcane Archive says that placing whiskers in a white bag and putting that bag in a car will help protect you from accidents, thieves, mechanical problems, and tickets.
Some people view cat whiskers the way they view baby teeth, as a sentimental treasure, notes a story in Cattalk.com
They may save whiskers in little bottles or boxes, tuck them into purses or wallets, or tape them to their refrigerator or computer monitor. The whiskers are reminders of cats that have touched their lives.
A lady on Flickr, shared an image of whiskers she’s collected from within her home. The image taken in 2009 shows 399 whiskers displayed in a little bottle.
If you Google “cat whiskers good luck charm” you’ll find people who create and sell tiny bottle charms to place cat whiskers in.
Other people, as I found on Etsy and Pinterest, use whiskers to create unique jewelry and fabric art.
On eBay you can purchase a Japanese “Cat Whisker Case,” a specialized wood storage box for whiskers that features an engraved cat motif and the words “Neko no Hige” (the “cats whiskers”).
While whiskers may bring good luck, they play a vital role as sensory tools for cats. They vary in length and color and pop out of distinct areas on a cat’s body.
In the womb, a kitten grows whiskers (technically called vibrissae) before any other hair. Whiskers are touch receptors embedded into skin deeper than fur. Each whisker is surrounded by sensory nerves that help the cat detect changes in its surroundings.
Aside from sprouting from a cat’s cheeks, whiskers also grow from above their eyes, on the chin and back of the front legs. All cats have 12 whiskers on each side of the nose for a total of 24. These long whiskers come in a variety of styles, such as wavy, a classic upsweep like a handlebar mustache, or straight like curb feelers. Whiskers on the sides of the nose let cats know if they can fit into tight spaces. They spread out over an area approximately as wide as a cat’s body. They also detect air vibrations which help a cat when hunting.
Whiskers on the back of their front legs help them determine how large prey is and how far away. Those located above the eyes help a cat detect the presence of objects and avoid eye injuries while exploring.
Like cat hair, whiskers fall out and regrow. Sometimes they are harmlessly broken when playing with siblings or toys. It takes two weeks to grow a replacement whisker.
As a cat ages, their whisker colors can change. A black cat, for example, may begin sporting a white whisker now and then.
A word of caution with whiskers: never trim them. Removing a cat’s tools for navigation will make them disoriented and scared. If a cat without whiskers was a human, wrote Tom Ryan with thenest.com, “It would be like someone took away your toes, tied your arms behind your back, blindfolded you and spun you around.”
Cats can also be irritated by eating or drinking out of a tiny bowl that causes their whiskers to bend. Using a plate or wide bowl will help them eat and drink comfortably.
If your cat’s whiskers seem like they’re always missing, broken, drooping, splitting at the ends or shriveling, it’s it is a sign to see a veterinarian.
Aside from assistance with hunting, whiskers are unique mood indicators.
If they are flat against the face a cat may be scared or mad, if they are motionless the cat may be resting and peaceful, if they are flared forward they are probably happy and showing love.
My beautiful senior, Joan of Arc, uses her long whiskers to lead me hither to receive love. They fan forward creating a funnel towards her pink nose so I can kiss it.
Kissing her nose with the gentle tickle of vibrissae on my cheeks is what flashes back when I find her long whiskers in a windowsill or on her favorite window seat. They are treasured memory sticks to display on my dresser if only for a day.
This story was born from a poem I recently crafted about cat whiskers. That poem, “String for a fairy’s fiddle,” is shared here.
Do you collect your cat’s shed whiskers? What do you store your cat’s whiskers in?
Tracy Ahrens is a veteran journalist, author, artist and mom to three rescued cats and one dog. She shares her pet stories with several publications including Catster and Dogster. See her website at www.tracyahrens.weebly.com and add her children’s book, “Sammy Sparrow’s First Flight,” to your collection. All proceeds help 9 humane organizations.
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