It’s called whisker stress. Many cats suffer from it daily, and yours may be one of them.
Domesticated cats that live and eat indoors don’t have the luxury of eating their food anywhere they’d like. A feral cat can hunt down her prey, and consume it wherever she pleases. Circumstances are much different in a domestic environment where the human is in charge of when, where, and how the cat will eat. So how do a cat’s whiskers play into all of this?
The role that whiskers play in terrestrial mammals is mainly to augment their short-distance vision. A cat has approximately 8 to 12 of these whiskers on each side of their face, arranged in horizontal rows that fan out sideways on each side of the upper lip, plus some tufts of shorter whiskers above their eyes, on their chin, and even on the back of their forelegs, just above the paw! These whiskers are deeply-rooted, and rich in blood vessels and nerve endings that provide your cat with information about surrounding objects and even air movement. This exceptionally sensitive tool assists them in many forms of navigation. Each whisker functions as a mechanical transmitter, conveying pressure applied along the shaft to receptors in the follicle at the whisker base.
These modified hairs allow a cat to accurately discriminate an object’s distance, direction, and even surface texture. Whiskers, also known as “tactile hairs” or “vibrissae,” are very sensitive. They provide the cat with sensory feedback about their environment. The tips of the whiskers have sensory organs called proprioceptors. “These receptors are very sensitive to pressure,” says animal behaviorist Myrna Milani, DVM. “Any time they come close to something, it triggers a sensation. This helps a cat detect the presence, size, and shape of nearby objects he may not be able to see.”
It’s the proprioceptors that deserve our special attention here. Because a cat’s whiskers are so exquisitely sensitive, it can be terribly irritating to a cat if their food or water bowls are narrow enough to cause the whiskers to touch the sides of the bowl. You may assume your cat is merely being picky about her food, but she could actually be very uncomfortable with the feeding dish – not the food itself.
Making sure that your cat has an adequately sized and appropriately shaped food bowl could make a tremendous difference in how comfortable your cat is when she’s eating her food.
How Does Your Feline Family Member Eat?
Have you ever observed your cat using his or her paw to scoop the food out of the dish? This is could be an indication that your feline companion could be experiencing whisker stress. Similarly, many cats fed from a deep or narrow bowl will sometimes only graze on the top layer of food, avoiding the food on the bottom. This is because the cat is not comfortable pushing their sensitive face into a tight bowl. Imagine what forcing those sensitive, delicate instruments into a tiny food dish must feel like!
Simply put, Whisker Stress is caused when a cat’s sensitive whiskers touch the sides of the bowl.
I have to admit, when I first heard about “whisker stress” I was a bit skeptical; I thought it was a marketing scheme to sell fancy food dishes. But then I chose to investigate further. When I thought about all four of feline family members, I realized that I had seen this happening with a couple of our cats!
One of our cats will sometimes pull pieces of the dry or wet food out of his feeding dish. At first I thought he was just being a hungry piggy. But what was actually happening is the bowl was way too small; he would rather eat the food outside of the dish, rather than try to cram his face inside of it and aggravate his sensitive whiskers.
Another one of our cats was asking for dry food every ten minutes. It turns out that he was not just being “a hungry hungry hippo”; he was eating as much as he could from the dish until his whiskers became stressed.
Rundown of the scene: He would eat for a few minutes, and then stop eating. I would pick up the dish and add more food for later, then put it away. Then he would come back 20 min later asking for more food. I would give him the full dish, and he would repeat the same behavior! I know now that he would stop eating as soon as his whiskers were stressed.
Our most finicky feline eater would hang around intently watching while the evening food was being prepared. But when his dinner was offered he would stare at the bowl then walk away. Again, the bowl was too tiny for him to eat comfortably. Rather than experiencing pain or discomfort while eating, he would choose to go hungry. He wasn’t being “finicky”. He was very uncomfortable.
When the cat’s food level was too low, they were forced to put their faces down into the bowl causing their whiskers to brush up against the sides. It was clearly uncomfortable to all of them. I had labeled their behaviors to fit my perceptions instead of seeing what was really happening! I was not aware of their exquisitely sensitive whiskers. In fact, a cat’s whiskers are so superbly programmed that if they move even 1/2000th of the width of a human hair, a signal is triggered and sent to the cat’s brain.
So what’s the solution to whisker Stress? It’s simple: switch their food bowls. There are many cat food dishes designed specifically to reduce or eliminate whisker stress, such as the ModaPet food dishes. You can purchase one of these stylish and efficient food dishes here.
If you are on a very tight budget you can get a cat water dish for about $3.00. It’s small enough to be used as a food dish, but plenty wide enough to avoid any whisker stress. Or you can simply feed your cat from a wide or shallow dish, a saucer, or even a small plate. Switching to one of these alternatives will allow your feline companion to eat without the stress of over-stimulating their whiskers and save you from continually clean up after him or refilling the food dish every 20 minutes.
It’s amazing what you will learn when you take the time to remove your preconceived ideas and beliefs and objectively OBSERVE. We need to ask ourselves questions to become aware and learn. How does your feline prefer to eat? Do they behave strangely sometimes when eating? Do they stop and start again? Do they refuse to eat when they seemed hungry just minutes earlier?
Remove your personal beliefs about them. Open your mind to consider the world of your animal companions. They are experiencing life on a very different playing field. Be a Conscious Companion and take the time to observe their behaviors. They always have something to teach you.
This article has been published in “WHAT IS MY CAT SAYING? FELINE COMMUNICATION 101”.
Other Recommended Feeding Dishes for Felines:
Dr. Catsby's Stainless Steel Anti-Whisker Stress Cat Food Bowl
29 thoughts on “Whisker Stress -Does Your Cat Have It?”
These are way well written!
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Thank you, Michael! I’m so glad you’re enjoying them!
Great artice. I’ve noticed both my cat and dogs have preferences for different materials. For example, none of them like to drink from plastic bowls. They drink more water out of glass or metal containers, which is really important for my cat on prescription food! This also makes me wonder how much my sphynx cat’s life experience is altered by not having whiskers.
Laurel that is very interesting! And kudos to you for noticing each of their behaviors. That is the key.
I would love to know more about the sphynx’s eating preferences without whiskers!
I haven’t noticed that he prefers any particular dish for food, just for water. The cat also drinks a lot, due to his prescription food for urinary health, and he seems to prefer the large dog water dish to his own, which are both stainless. The only food issue I’ve noticed with the cat is when we moved, and I tried to feed him in the laundry room where the litter box is. Our new house is pretty small, so there are limited options for the cat bowl, which also discourage the dogs from stealing left overs. (Note, they would NEVER steal from the cat while he’s eating. They know who rules this roost!) We weren’t sure why he cried to be fed, then would just cry more rather than eat. Turns out, he didn’t want his food and water near the litter box. Guess I can’t blame him.
My sphynx has no issues with eating (except enjoying eating a little too much). She happily buries her head into my water glass, or that of any family member to drink the last of the dregs of water. This is a really interesting article. Thanks for posting.
Of course, none of that is related to the lack of whiskers!
Love this blog!
wow how fascinating! I thought my sat using his paw to eat and drink was a sign of his sophistication. Talk about projection!
Right? Great point! We so often put human attributes on animals. When we do that it doesn’t leave any room to see what might really be going on with them 🙂
Lovely post. Well thought out and researched. I’m sure it will save quite a few kitties some whisker stress..
My cats now eat off of dinner plates for just that reason..
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Wow, I just found this article through another site and I am blown away. I have several cats and two of them exhibit signs of whisker stress. This article makes so much sense it’s painful to me to think about how I have dismissed my cats’ signals to me as quirky behavior. Thank you for this post!
Kim, Thanks so much for the feedback! I am happy that you found this article; I hope it can help you and your cats.
OMG! And I am a “cruel owner” say always “you have everything”… thanks a lot for this article!!!
Firstly, every cat that’s ever owned me has not really liked to drink water out of a plastic bowl, I learnt this along time ago. Further more, some cats actually prefer to have their water in a mug rather than a bowl or dish. If you have ever found your cat on the kitchen counter drinking water from a mug that you have left in the sink while their water bowl is still full, it’s a good indication that they would prefer their water served to them in a mug. As for the whisker stress thing, well written and certainly thought provoking, but I’m not as sold on it as you obviously are. Sounds a bit like humans just wanting to pretend they have an answer for everything again to be honest. Anyone that’s been around cats long enough knows that they can adapt to things very quickly, but in saying that, they also have mood swings and personalities, not to mention personality disorders and anxiety problems, similar to some of us. Some cats like to eat a little and then leave some for later, so the fact that one of your cats ate half of what you gave it could well be because of that. The fact that you then filled the bowl up again means that it will always probably only eat so much and then leave some, because that’s it’s eating habit. I currently have two cats, one eats a little at a time until the bowl is actually empty, the other one not only eats all his food in one sitting, but also cleans his dish when he is finished. Personally, while I’m not writing off your theory, I think sometimes we humans just end up making more out of something that is natural so that we think we then understand it. That’s why some people think there is a god and a heaven etc because they then think they know the answers. However, as mentioned, your theory may well hold water, if you’ll pardon the pun, as I don’t pretend to know it all, so it would be wrong of me to dismiss it all together.
This is a fantastic post! I have noticed our year old cat chucking her food out of her bowl and eating it off the floor or work surface. We are now going to get a bigger bowl for her. Thanks a lot! 🙂
Thanks, my pain in the a## cat made me move his food around 3 4 times a day until I watched him.He eats sideways.I gave him a pie plate,better but now I think I will raise it higher and see if that works.
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My cats eat off plates and drink from large fountains and regular wide bowls. My oldest cat, Noel, taught me about whisker stress before their was a term for it 🙂
Right on! When my older cat stopped eating due to bad teeth, she had a major dental with extractions. Even on pain meds, she wouldn’t eat canned food. Finally, I gave her a wide, shallow bowl with generous clearance for the sides of her face! Problem solved! That’s her new dish now!
I love this information my cat of 11 years mean black cat named mario was my protection he and I went through so much together but this article is interesting because he would not eat once there was a hole exposing the bottom of the bowl once I filled it he would eat were his whiskers touching the food around him?
Brilliant article! Puts a name and explanation to a phenomenon I’ve been dealing with without really knowing what’s going on. My cats DO have wide, flat dishes, but the smaller cat did seem to be “picky’ about canned food, despite every appearance of being ravenous while waiting for her meal. (And despite gobbling up her once-a-day small scoop of crunchies, something I attributed to just the ways manufacturers have found to make dry food irresistible to cats.)
Along the way, I noticed she liked the canned food that comes in a “molded” formulation (it can be scooped out and retains its shape) rather than the more soupy kinds of formulations. Still she would sometimes only partially eat those rations. Just a few weeks ago I discovered that she cleans her plate when I scoop out the “cake” of food (or in her case, 1/2 of a cake from one of those small Fancy Feast-sized cans), then dice it into small cubes and spread them discretely around the dish so that they don’t touch each other. Since then, she’s gobbled up every meal.
My theory had been that she just didn’t like getting her muzzle sticky from the soupier kinds of food, but now I favor the whisker-stress hypothesis! As a relatively tiny cat, with a therefore even shorter “muzzle” (if you can call it that, in cats) than most, I suspect her whiskers “complain” even faster than more average-size cats. Anyway, I offer the dicing solution (in addition to flatter dishes) as one more way to address what looks like picky eating but isn’t.
Our cat has some facial hair falling out. Could whisker stress cause this?
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Great article. I’m dealing with many of these issues as well..
So much helpful information. My sweet kitty maggie has been pooping and peeing in strange places suddenly . . . she is like a mirror to me and I’ve been dealing with PTSD. I hate to see her unhappy. We already had a fun morning where I hid her food and played with her more. I changed her dry bowl food to a plate (I wondered why she never ate the bottom of the bowl! We’ve both been through hell lately. I like the foraging idea but don’t want to draw roaches come spring. I’ve always thought she would love a tall tower bed, safe away from everything, stable, and she would have a perspective on the whole apartment. What do you think about them? Is it just a commercial thing? Would it hold her weight (c20lbs?) without tipping over? Any suggestions?
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Mickey, Thank you for your question. I am just now seeing this; apologies! I would love to provide insight for you both. Please email me directly at Amy@ConsciousCompanion.com