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Posted on 03-24-2017

            It’s called whisker stress. Many cats suffer from it daily, and yours may be one of them.

So what exactly is this disorder?

            Domesticated cats that live and eat indoors don’t have the luxury of eating their food anywhere they would 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 cat’s whiskers play in to all of this?

            The role that whiskers play in terrestrial mammals is mainly to augment their short-distance vision. A cat has approximately 8-12 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 their 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 objects 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 the cat detect the presence, size, and shape of nearby objects that 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 and water bowls are narrow enough to touch the sides of the bowl. You may assume your cat is just being picky about her food, but she could actually be very uncomfortable with the feeding dish- not the food itself.

            Making sure your cat has an adequately sized and appropriately shaped food and water bowl could make a tremendous difference in how comfortable your cat is while she is 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 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 at 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 our feline family members, I realized 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 was the bowl was way too small. He would rather eat the food outside of the dish rather than try and cram his face inside of it and aggravate his sensitive whiskers.

            Another of our cats was asking for dry food every 10 minutes. It turns out that he was not just being “a hungry, hungry hippo”, he was eating as much as he could from his bowl until his whiskers became stressed. He would eat for a few minutes, and then stop eating.  I would pick up the dish, add more food for later, and put it away. Then he would come back 20 minutes later asking for more food. I would give him the full dish, and he would repeat the same behavior! I know now he would stop eating as soon as his whiskers were stressed.

            Our most finicky eater would hang around intently watching while the evening food was being prepared. When his own 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 my cat’s food level was too low, they were forced to put their faces down in the bowl causing their whiskers to brush up against the sides. It was clearly uncomfortable to all of them. I had labelled 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.

Things to look for with your cat

            You may notice that he frequently leaves food in the bowl but acts like he is still hungry and wants more. There is a funny cartoon that shows an insistent cat bothering his human for food even though his bowl is half full. Maybe, just maybe, this cartoon cat isn’t being a pest for no good reason. Perhaps he wants his food “topped off” so he can eat without his whiskers touching the bowl!

            Other signs of whisker stress include using the paws to remove food from the bowl to eat it from the floor, staring at the food for a time before eating, pacing and acting hesitant to eat, aggressive behavior toward other pets during mealtime, or meowing for you to fill the bowl when the kibble falls below the rim of the bowl.

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.

            If you are on a 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. You can also 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 stress from over-stimulating their whiskers and save you from continually cleaning up after him and refilling the food dish every 20 minutes.

            It is 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.

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