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The Debunker: Do Cats Use Their Whiskers for Balance?

by Ken Jennings

In November, we set our clocks an hour forward and officially say good-bye to an hour of daylight every evening. From now until spring, we're going to be spending most of our non-working hours in the dark: commuting home from the office when it's dark, making dinner when it's dark, meeting friends when it's dark, getting the kids to and from a million stupid activities in the dark. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is going to brighten this gloomy month with the light of knowledge, debunking some long-held myths about other nocturnal urban wanderers: the birds and critters you might see on a streetlit November night.

The Debunker: Do Cats Use Their Whiskers for Balance?

No Brooklyn hipster bartender has ever been more protective of his showy whiskers than cat fanciers are for those of their little darlings. Whiskers are sensory organs and must not be trimmed, they insist. Sometimes they're so emphatic as to claim that cats need their whiskers to balance, and wouldn't even be able to walk in a straight line without them.


Well, no. Cats, like all mammals, maintain their balance with the help of fluid in their inner ear. But it's true that whiskers are important sensory mechanisms for many animals, including cats, and should not be clipped. Surprisingly, there is little evidence for the commonly held belief that whiskers help a cat gauge whether its body can fit through an opening. Whiskers do roughly match the width of a cat's body, but they don't vary as individual cats gain or lose weight, and they certainly don't prevent cats from getting their heads and bodies stuck in things all the time, as pet owners will attest.

Whiskers, or vibrissae if you're showing off for your vet, are really nothing but long, specialized hairs. But the follicles of those hairs are nerve-rich areas, so sensitive that cats can detect subtle air currents around them even if a whisker is never touched. This is a trait that evolved to help cats hunt at night: they can "see" objects looming ahead of them and prey moving around them even in pitch blackness. But that has nothing to do with balance and, quite possibly, little to do with measuring the width of cat doors.

Quick Quiz: "Barbels" are the whisker-like sensory organs you'd find near the mouths of what type of animal?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.