cat care

Whisker Fatigue in Cats

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If you've never heard of whisker fatigue, don't worry. It's not necessarily a widely known condition. But for some cats, it does negatively impact daily life.


Why do cats have whiskers?

Cat whiskers are extraordinary sensing hairs that give them almost extrasensory powers. Despite their evolution, whiskers (tactile hairs or vibrissae), have remained as features on most mammals in some basic form.

For cats, whiskers are much more than facial adornments that add to their cuteness. Whiskers act as high-powered antennae that pull signals into their brain and nervous system. The ultra-sensitive sensory organs at the base of the whiskers, called proprioceptors, tell your cat a lot about their world. They provide your cat with information regarding their own orientation in space and the what and where of their environment. In these ways, whiskers help your cat move around furniture in a dark room, hunt fast-moving prey (by sensing changes in air currents) and help to determine if they can squeeze into that incredibly tight spot between the bookcase and the wall.


So what exactly is whisker fatigue?

While cats can voluntarily “turn on” the sensory focus of their whiskers exactly where they want, whisker receptors mostly respond to a cat’s autonomic system — the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves that respond to the internal and external environment without conscious control (for example—pupils constricting in response to bright light).

You can think of whisker fatigue as an information overload that stresses out your cat. Because whisker hairs are so sensitive, every time your cat comes into contact with an object or detects movement, even a small change in air current or a slight brush against their face, messages are transmitted from those sensory organs at the base of their whiskers to their brain. That barrage of “messages” could stress out your cat, eventually causing what some people call whisker fatigue.

However, “fatigue” may not be the best description of the condition, since what your cat is feeling is probably more like distaste or aversion than soreness or actual fatigue. In fact, whisker stress is another term some people use for the condition.

Not all feline vets think whisker fatigue is a real condition or cause for concern. Dr. Cathy Lund of City Kitty, a feline-only veterinary practice in Providence, R.I, questions the validity of whisker fatigue. While a cat’s whiskers do serve as very sensitive tactile sensors, she does not believe contact between whiskers and objects causes stress in cats. That said, stress, for whatever reason, is a real issue of concern for cat owners and vets.


What causes whisker fatigue?

While your cat relies on their fetching facial antennae to navigate the world, they can’t tune out unnecessary messages the way we filter out background noise. They inadvertently finds stimulation in the most common and ever-present situations, like at their food or water bowl. If their whiskers touch the sides of the bowl every time they dips their head to sip or eat, this can cause whisker fatigue, the theory suggests.

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Your cat’s behavior at their food and water bowl will tip you off that they are stressed. Some signs to watch for include:

  • Pacing in front of the bowls

  • Being reluctant to eat but appearing to be hungry

  • Pawing at food and knocking it to the floor before eating

  • Acting aggressive toward other animals around food

Of course these behaviors can also be related to potentially serious health conditions like dental disease, oral tumors, gastrointestinal diseases, behavioral problems and more, so if you have any concerns about your cat’s well-being, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian.

Many vets, regardless of their opinions on whisker fatigue, agree that cats often find eating out of a bowl unappealing in general and providing a flat surface for meals is preferable.

Whisker fatigue is not a disease (and is not caused by or related to any type of illness) and appears to manifest primarily with the repeated daily contact with food and water bowls. However, a cat who is stressed is not happy, and if they avoid eating and drinking, they might become malnourished and/or dehydrated.


How can whisker fatigue be prevented?

Luckily, preventing or stopping stress related to whisker fatigue at feeding time is as easy as replacing your cat’s food and water bowls. At meal time, provide a flat surface or a wide-enough bowl for cat food so that their whiskers don't touch the sides of the bowl. In a pinch, a paper plate can serve as a suitable food dish.

Most cats prefer a lip-less, large flowing water source, for drinking. Ideally, cat parents should provide an automatic, fresh water source, like a cat water fountain, which cats prefer to an icky, stale bowl of water that might as well be from an old tire.

Some cat parents believe another solution is to trim their cats’ whiskers, but this is a giant no-no. Trimming whiskers mutes their expression, dims their perceptions, and in general, discombobulates cats and annoys them.


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8 Ways to Help a Blind Cat

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A blind cat can have a wonderful, happy life. It is not at all uncommon for pets, particularly older ones, to suffer vision loss. Normal cat vision is close to humans or perhaps just a little less. Pets have more problems focusing on near objects than people do, though, which is why your kitty may have some trouble seeing the last few kibbles in the food bowl.

Just as people over the age of 40 tend to need reading glasses, the same vision changes start to develop in almost all cats over the age of five. This normal change, called nuclear sclerosis, results in less flexibility of the lens, a hazy appearance, and less ability to focus on close objects. Pets still see pretty well despite the bluish tint to their eyes. Blind cats typically are still very happy. They continue to enjoy and remain engaged in life and the world around them—including their humans. Kitties do not need to see you to love you.


Your blind pet’s comfort level, safety, and emotional health are important. Follow these tips to keep the cat happy and comfortable.

Do not move food or litter box.

It is vital to keep the food, water bowls, litter box, and pet beds in the same spot, so your cat can easily find belongings.

Do some scent marking.

It may be helpful to “scent” important objects for the cat with strong odors such as peppermint to help its nose “see” what it is looking for.

Avoid rearranging the furniture.

Blind pets memorize and "mind-map" the house, and moving things around will confuse the cat. It is not at all unusual for a blind cat, for instance, to still insist on making floor-to-counter leaps with confidence as long as its memory remains fresh and accurate.

Safeguard dangerous zones.

Pad the sharp edges of furniture with bubble wrap until your cat learns to avoid the danger. Block off steep stairways with baby gates to prevent falls.

Use your voice to guide your cat.

Your pet’s personality and behavior may change a bit as vision fades. Some pets become more dependent on the owner, and act “clingy”—basically they will treat you as a guide, stand very close, and follow you around. Get in the habit of speaking to your cat when you enter or leave a room to help it keep track of your whereabouts.

Attach a bell to other animals in the house.

In multiple pet homes, another cat or dog may serve as a guide for the blind pet. Help your blind pet by attaching a bell or other noisemaker to the other animal's collar.

Create a safe spot in each room.

To avoid tripping over the pet that is always underfoot, provide a safe, comfy bed in each room. Very social cats may become standoffish once vision fades. They may want to avoid contact with houseguests to avoid being stepped on.

Don't startle your cat.

Blind pets also startle more easily, so always speak to your cat before petting him to avoid being accidentally nipped or swatted in reflex.


If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.


Hear From Us Again

Don't forget to subscribe to our email newsletter for more recipes, articles, and clinic updates delivered to your inbox (here). Or, you can keep up to date by liking and following our Facebook page (here).

Related: We have more information under our cat health tags.