A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Are a cat's whiskers essential to its sense of balance?

June 19, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

Is it true that house cats would be unable to walk a straight line if they have their whiskers cut? I need to know and thought it would be easier on the cat if I asked you instead of performing the experiment on him myself.

It was a wise move to ask someone before you dared to incur the wrath of your feline.

First, a cat's balance, like that of all other mammals, is controlled through the inner ear. If you want to see Tiger reeling like a drunk on New Year's Eve, you'd have to fool with the ear canals, not advisable under any circumstances.

Next, the whiskers are specialized hairs that grow mostly on the face (but can be found on some cats on their legs as well). Their main job is to help Kitty judge distances, especially when the cat has to pass through a narrow opening. According to the ASPCA Complete Guide to Cats, you can clip whiskers, but it is not advised as it changes the cat's perception of the environment, especially if the cat is a night hunter. Cats are increasingly reliant on their whiskers as the available light decreases. If, for example, your cat got gum in his whiskers, you might have to clip (or have a vet do it), but it's not something I'd do casually.

The Cat Fanciers' Association (which is to cats what the AKC is to dogs) has this listed on its page of myths about cats (http://www.cfainc.org/articles/myths-facts .html)

Myth: A cat's sense of balance is in its whiskers.

Fact: Cats use their whiskers as "feelers" but not to maintain their balance.

So you aren't the only one to hear this old wives' tale, but you can put the scissors away, even though it was in the name of scientific curiosity.

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