Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?

Some think that dogs whiskers have no purpose and they have them snipped off at the groomers, but whiskers are actually essential in helping your dog navigate the world! Keep reading to find out more.
Labrador dog panting

Many people don’t realise that the coarse, long whiskers on a dog’s face actually serve an important purpose. In fact, some dog owners try and snip off dog whiskers because they think they look untidy.

Also known as vibrissae, these dog whiskers have several uses and can help your dog navigate the world around them. They help your dog in many aspects of their life and even can guide them in the dark and help them figure out the size of different objects!

Keep reading to find out why dogs have whiskers and why you should never have them snipped off, no matter how untidy your pooch appears.

What are dog whiskers?

Whiskers or vibrissae are long, coarse hairs that usually occur around a dog’s muzzle, jaw and above their eyes. They’re deeply embedded into the skin, and the follicles at the base of these whiskers are packed full of nerves that send sensory messages to the dog’s brain.

Dog whiskers are not like other hairs in a dog’s fur – they are really delicate and it’s been said that they’re as sensitive to touch as human fingertips! Which is why if you’ve ever touched your dog’s whiskers they may blink or flinch in response.

Dog whiskers

Why do dogs have whiskers?

Dogs have whiskers to help them explore the world by sending sensory information to the brain. Dogs don’t have the strongest eyesight so they rely on their whiskers, particularly when locating small objects or anything up close. Any touch or air movement near a dog’s whiskers stimulates the nerves at the base, sending vital signals to the brain.

Whiskers help your dog figure out what things are and determine the size, shape and speed of objects. They can even help them see in the dark and work out if they can fit through small spaces.

Dog whiskers around the eyes also offer protection because when their whiskers touch anything, it usually causes them to blink, which avoids harmful things like dirt getting in their eyes. Plus, whiskers can prevent your dog being poked in the eye by branches or twigs when out walking, as the little hairs can sense where things are.

A dog’s whiskers are some of the first hairs to develop and they help your dog safely find their way around extremely early on. All of this means that whiskers play an important part in your dog’s life – they assist with navigation and understanding the environment, support poor vision and help keep your dog safe.

Whiskers are great hunting tools

Not only are whiskers essential tools for helping your dog find their way around, but they also help them to be successful hunters. Dogs’ whiskers help them pick up on moving objects because when the air moves it bounces back and is picked up by their whiskers. This signal helps dogs to tell the size and shape of the moving object or prey, as well as determine how quickly it is moving. This makes them especially useful for hunting as they can alert dogs to the location of prey. Their whiskers paired with their incredible sense of smell are the two main reasons why your dog is such a good hunter!  

If your dog is used for hunting, it’s crucial that you don’t cut their whiskers as this will have a huge impact on your dog’s ability to hunt and find prey, and it can reduce their general confidence as by cutting them off from an important source of information. It would be like removing one of their largest senses.  

Dog whiskers are important for body language

It may be surprising to learn that your dog’s whiskers can also demonstrate how they’re feeling. When a dog feels threatened, they flare their whiskers and point them forwards, which alters their body language and helps them signal to other dogs that they’re unhappy. Because of this, whiskers may also form part of a dog’s defence strategy.

panting Labrador dog with whiskers

Can I cut my dog’s whiskers?

We would never advise a dog owner to cut off their pet’s whiskers, unless advised by a vet. Some dog groomers snip off vibrissae for aesthetic purposes, but this is not a good idea. It’s true that dog whiskers tend to appear sporadically, while cats get whiskers in neat lines, but they serve an important purpose and shouldn’t be removed.

It doesn’t hurt dogs to cut the whiskers as the hairs don’t contain any pain receptors, cutting them off could create confusion or make your dog less spatially aware. It may affect their ability to judge when objects are nearby, which will make your dog a lot less confident.

If your groomer has cut them off though, don’t worry too much as they do grow back. Just make sure they know not to cut them again next time. You should also never pluck a dog’s whiskers as they have a lot of nerve endings at the base, which will make it painful.

Read more guides about your dog’s behaviour and what it means.