Monday, October 11, 2010

Do blind cats use their whiskers for sight?

Lucy the blind cat

When I stand over Lucy’s head, looking down, her whiskers look like branches from a wild and crazy tree.  They go from left to right, up and down, and sideways. I’ve never seen so many whiskers on one cat, and I’m thankful for them, as I know these whiskers are the reason she can be a mobile, active part of our family.

Cats have about 24 whiskers on their muzzles in two rows. Each row can move independently of the other row.  Each whisker is also connected to nervous tissue, meaning a cat can determine a lot about where she is just by listening to her whiskers.

A breeze can tell a cat about air pressure, temperature changes and the approximate size of a space (keeping her from cramming herself into a space that is too small). Whiskers are the first sensory organs to grow on a cat, meaning she learns to use her whiskers before she can see or hear.

Some experts say that cats born blind have more whiskers than a sighted cat. This would make sense, as blind cats need their whiskers more completely than do sighted cats.

However, Lucy will not sit still long enough for me to count her whiskers (nor would we want to put her through the torture).

But I am careful to protect her whiskers. I feed her in wide bowls, so she won’t break her whiskers by pressing her face into a shallow bowl. And I don’t brush her face or head during her weekly grooming sessions. I want her to keep those wild and crazy whiskers, however many there may be.

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