Have you ever seen your cat pull food out of their bowl (if you use one), dump it next to the bowl, and then—and only then—eat it…leaving food bits and debris scattered in a big mess all over?  Or seen them eat just a small amount of food off the top of the bowl (or drink just a bit of water), and then beg for more, completely ignoring all the food that’s still in their bowl?  Why do they do this?  Are they being prima donnas?  Or is there more to it than that?

Turns out, there is a valid reason as to why your cat might be doing this, and it’s not to make your life more difficult.  It’s called whisker stress, and it has to do with—you guessed it—their sensitive, extraordinary whiskers.


Your cat’s whiskers

To really understand whisker stress, let’s take a look at your cat’s whiskers.  Whiskers—in all mammals, not just cats—provide additional information about the objects with which the animal comes into contact.  Many animals’ whiskers are so finely tuned that they can even give information about air movement.  They help enhance the animal’s senses, particularly it’s short-distance vision.  Because they are so rich in blood vessels and nerve endings, they are extraordinarily sensitive.  And, because they give so much information about nearby objects and air movement, they also help cats and other mammals navigate through their surroundings.

Each whisker—and cats typically have between 8 and 12 on each side of their face, as well as shorter whiskers on their chins, above their eyes, and even on their legs—is essentially set up to transmit information about pressure that is applied along the whisker to the base, which contains the follicle and receptors.  And, the tip of each whisker has proprioceptors, which are sensory organs that are very sensitive to pressure.  These proprioceptors are incredibly sensitive to the slightest pressure.  Cats can use their whiskers to determine how far away an object is, where it’s located, and—quite amazingly—even the texture of the object.

cat in snow Copyright Vitaliy Maselko

What do their whiskers have to do with anything?

So what does all this have to do with your cat’s meal-time habits?  Well, because the proprioceptors are so incredibly sensitive, it can actually be very painful for your cat to eat or drink out of a bowl that so narrow that their whiskers touch the side of the bowl.  Some cats will actually use their paws to scoop food out of their bowl, and others will only eat off of the very top.  In some instances, you may notice that your cat, while clearly hungry, seems reluctant to eat.  They may meow at the bowl, even if there is food in it, pace around the bowl, or stand by it for a time before eating.  In all of these examples, they are trying to avoid having to cram their sensitive whiskers in to the bowl, which is very uncomfortable for them.

To give you an idea of how sensitive a cat’s whiskers are: if a single whisker moves 1/200th of the width of a human hair, it sends a signal to their brain.  Now, picture how intense of a signal it must be if they have to cram their whole face into a bowl, smashing their whiskers up against the side while trying to eat.  Their whiskers have evolved to give them information about their environment and make sure that, for example, they are able to navigate through narrow spaces safely, and if the bowl is too small, those same whiskers would constantly send signals to their brain that the space is too narrow and they need to stop trying to fit their heads in there.

What can I do about it?

So what can you do if your cat is experiencing whisker stress?  Luckily, the fix is relatively simple.  You can feed them using a bowl that takes their whiskers into account.  The bowl should be wide enough and shallow enough that their whiskers don’t touch the sides, even if they put their whole heads in to get at food on the very bottom.  You can use a shallow plate or saucer, or you can purchase a bowl specifically designed to relieve whisker stress.  Some good options are Dr. Catsby’s Bowl for Whisker Relief (https://drcatsby.com) or Trendy Pet’s Whisker Free Stress raised bowl (www.trendypet.com/products/whisker-free-stress).  (Note that I have no affiliation with either company and receive no monetary compensation for mentioning them in Raw Pet Digest).

Whether you decide to buy a bowl specifically designed to relieve whisker stress, or if you just choose to feed your cat using a wide, shallow plate or saucer, their mealtimes will be much more comfortable and more enjoyable if you make sure to feed them using an appropriately sized and shaped dish.  Their whiskers are extraordinary tools, but they can also cause them some stress if they are fed out of a bowl that is the wrong size or shape.  The good news is that the fix is easy and inexpensive, and it can have a profound impact on how much your cat enjoys their meals—and cut down on the mess you have to clean up too!

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