Whiskers (or “vibrissae,” to give them their technical term) are a very special type of hair found on a huge number of mammals, including the domesticated kind. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering what the point of a dog’s whiskers is, then the answer might intrigue you. Far from simply being something for food to get caught on, those long, coarse hairs have a vital role in helping your dog define exactly where they are in relation to everything and everyone else. They’re essential, and without them, your dog would be one confused, disoriented pooch. So when those essential hairs start falling out, it can be a worry. But just how concerned should we be if we notice a few stray whiskers on the carpet? And why do dog’s whiskers fall out, anyway?
What Are Whiskers?
Before we start getting too involved in the question of why a dog’s whiskers fall out, there’s another question to consider. What, exactly, are whiskers? As PetMD explains, whiskers are your dog’s way of exploring the world. Whereas babies explore the world by picking up and touching everything they come across, dog’s check things out with their whiskers. Each whisker contains a special kind of receptor known as Merkel cells. These calls have a huge part in sensory function.
Whether it’s communicating with other species, maintaining a certain head position when they’re swimming, keeping a check on their environment, dispensing pheromones, or even signaling aggression (when a dog feels threatened, they flare their whiskers then point them forward as part of a defense strategy), whiskers play a vital role in a dog’s life. If all that wasn’t enough, whiskers also relay important information to a dog about the size, shape, and speed of any objects they encounter. Although this is useful enough in the day, it becomes even more valuable at night.
Why Do Whiskers Fall Out?
So, we know what whiskers are and why they’re so important. But what exactly does it mean when they fall out? Not a lot, as it turns out. As Dog Time explains, a dog shedding whiskers is just as normal as a human shedding skin. Sure, we need our skin, but on a cellular level, we’re in a constant state of shedding. So are dogs. It’s natural, it’s normal, and it’s nothing to get worked up about. Providing the whiskers grow back naturally (as in the vast majority of cases they do) and providing they’re falling out of their own accord rather than being plucked out by an overly zealous dog groomer, whisker shedding is nothing to be worried about. Your dog will still have enough whiskers to function normally, and any old whiskers they lose will be replaced in time with new ones.
When You Should Worry
Dogs shed and replace their whiskers continually. Sometimes they break, other times they splinter, and sometimes they simply fall out of their own accord. It’s rare for a dog to ever lose more than a few whiskers at a time. As a result, they’ll still have plenty of whiskers left on their snouts to go about things in much the same way they always have. But very occasionally, those few lost whiskers can turn into a lot. As the Daily Puppy notes, if your dog suddenly starts shedding whiskers faster than they can replace them, there’s a problem. For a start, whiskers are how a dog interacts with the world. Without them, they’re going get to get confused, disoriented, and more than a little bit miserable.
Secondly, if the rate of shedding increases dramatically, it could signify an underlying health condition. If you’re picking up more stray whiskers from your floor than usual, speak to your vet. They’ll conduct tests to ascertain the root cause of the problem and prescribe the necessary treatment. In the meantime, keeps things as calm and routine in your home as possible. Without their whiskers to guide them, your dog’s orientation will be off-kilter. They might feel anxious and start displaying out-of-character behavior. Stay patient. Once the treatment kicks in and the whiskers return, your dog will go back to its normal happy self.
How to Care for Your Dog’s Whiskers
The number one rule of caring for your dog’s whiskers? Never cut them. Whiskers are a little bit like eyebrows. Some sets grow in an orderly fashion, others seem to grow in a hundred and one different directions. Some sprout up in mad tufts; others are as orderly as a line of soldiers. Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way for whiskers to look. If your dog’s whiskers seem to be sprouting from areas you’ve never seen whiskers grow from before, leave them be. Your dog doesn’t care what they look like, so why should you? Whiskers aren’t like toenails. They’re not going to get long and curly if you don’t trim them regularly. They’re not suddenly going to start growing inwards. No matter how much you feel the urge to give your dog’s face a tidy-up, resist the temptation. How whiskers function is far more important than how they look.
Is Whisker Trimming Painful?
Trimming whiskers won’t necessarily be painful for your pet (whiskers might be sensitive, but they don’t have pain receptors) but it will leave them feeling off-kilter. Some studies have suggested it could even lead to decreased spatial awareness. Unless you want to risk your dog spending the next few weeks bumping into everything in sight, put the scissors down. If you’ve already indulged in some light grooming, don’t panic too much. The whiskers should grow back fairly quickly. Just take it as a lesson not to do it again.
Trimming aside, another thing you should never do is pluck out a dog’s whiskers. Even if you spot one that seems to be a stray, don’t pluck it. You could hurt your dog and even cause bleeding. Repeated plucking can eventually damage the hair follicle. When that happens, the whisker will stop growing back altogether. The best way to care for whiskers is to simply leave them be. They don’t need to be washed (your dog will take care of that whenever they dip their head in the water bowl), they don’t need to be shampooed, and least of all, they don’t need to be shortened. Remember, whiskers have a job to do. The best thing you can do for your pet is to stand back and let them do it.
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