Why Do Animals Have Whiskers?

iStock/Chloe Effron
iStock/Chloe Effron

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

Humans don’t have whiskers, but most other mammals do. These wiry hairs growing out of an animal’s face, forehead, and sometimes legs have a fancy scientific name: vibrissae (Vi-BRISS-uh). From cats and dogs to rats and seals, animals use whiskers to help them find their way and follow their prey.

Not all animals have great eyesight, and some need to be able to hunt and move at night when it’s harder to see. Plus, animals with long snouts, like dogs, sometimes have trouble seeing things that are right in front of their big noses! So for a lot of animals, whiskers are a little like fingers. We use our fingers to “see” in the dark by feeling things around us. But other animals brush, or whisk, their whiskers against objects to guide them, measure things, and find food. 

Whiskers aren’t just hairs. Where each whisker is rooted in the skin are lots and lots of nerve cells. When the whisker touches something, these nerve cells send messages to the brain. It’s amazing how much information an animal’s brain gets from the whiskers. Rats’ whiskers help them make mental maps of the world around them. Seals use their whiskers to sense the vibrations of a fish moving in the water. Many animals use whiskers to figure out whether or not they can fit through a tight space. Whiskers may look cute, but they also help animals survive.

Here’s a fun video from the BBC about how cats use their whiskers to catch prey.


5 Dog Breeds That Get Along With Cats

iStock/chendongshan
iStock/chendongshan

Dogs and cats may be seen as common enemies, but it does not have to be that way. If you're a strategic pet parent, you can add a cat into your dog family, or vice versa, seamlessly. here are plenty of dogs out there that would make a wonderful—and friendly—companion for your cat. Here are five of the best breeds for that.

1. JAPANESE CHINS

Japanese Chin against a burgundy background
iStock/Dixi_

​Japanese Chins are the perfect dogs for your pet. The breed has even been described as a ​"cat in a dog suit" because of their acrobatic abilities and cat-like agility. ​Animal Planet describes these dogs as even-tempered and adaptable to new members in the family. They're also playful, mischievous, smart, determined, and affectionate.

2. GOLDEN RETRIEVERS

Friendly Golden Retriever looks at the camera
iStock/KalebKroetsch

These ​furry friends are as playful as it gets, but more importantly they're a versatile breed, so they know how to adapt to different friends they meet, including cats of all sizes and ages. Golden retrievers are very unlikely to be rough with your cat, even when playing, and will just consider the cat a part of its family. There's no jealousy on the part o these dogs.

3. PAPILLONS

Papillon and a cat snuggle under a blanket
iStock/yykkaa

​Papillons are the dog versions of your friend who invites you to every social gathering. They have a ​"more the merrier" attitude, meaning they welcome any and all friends. These social butterflies are quick to befriend any and all creatures, cats included.

4. LABRADOR RETRIEVERS

Black Labrador Retriever and a cat share a couch
iStock/Willowpix

A Labrador retriever grows to be pretty huge, there's no denying that, but that does not spell disaster for a cat-dog relationship. Labrador retrievers are very outgoing, but at the same time very gentle, and get along well with cats.

5. BEAGLES

A Beagle and a cat cuddle together
iStock/kobkik

Beagles are an easy choice to add to the family. According to the American Kennel Club, beagles are very friendly around all animals, and have an easygoing demeanor. Despite the fact you may see a beagle chase a cat outside from time to time, indoors, they won't keep that same energy. Inside, they play well with others, and will live peacefully—and possibly even snuggle—with cats.

12 Fun Facts About Pugs

iStock/ClarkandCompany
iStock/ClarkandCompany

These wrinkly-faced dogs have an adorably rich history. In honor of National Pug Day, read up on essential facts for any pug fanatic.    

1. THEY'RE AN ANCIENT BREED.


iStock/Melissa711

Because the pug lineage stretches so far back, their early history is a little murky. Most believe that the breed originated in China and existed before 400 BCE and were called (or at least closely related to a breed called) “lo-sze.” Buddhist monks kept the dogs as pets in Tibetan monasteries.

2. THEY WERE TREATED LIKE ROYALTY.

Emperors of China kept pugs as lapdogs and treated them to all the luxuries of royal life. Sometimes the pampered pooches were given their own mini palaces and guards.  

3. A GROUP OF PUGS IS CALLED A GRUMBLE


iStock/calero

In Holland, the pug is called a mopshond, which comes from the Dutch for “to grumble.” 

4. THE BREED PROBABLY GETS ITS NAME FROM A MONKEY.

Marmosets were kept as pets in the early 18th century and were called pugs. The name made the jump to the dog because the two animals shared similar facial features. 

5. THE PUG IS THE OFFICIAL BREED OF THE HOUSE OF ORANGE.


iStock/Irishka1

In 1572, the Dutch were in the midst of the Eighty Years' War, a protracted struggle against the Spanish. The Prince of Orange, William the Silent, led the Dutch forces into battle. According to Dutch legend, while the prince was sleeping in his tent one night, Spanish assassins lurked just outside. Luckily, William’s pug, Pompey, was there to bark wildly and jump on his owner’s face. The Prince woke up and had his would-be assassins apprehended. Because of this, the pug was considered the official dog of the House of Orange. The effigy of Prince William I above his tomb also features Pompey at his feet (although weirdly, that dog doesn’t have a flat face, leading some to believe that it was a different breed).

Later, when Prince William III came to England to rule with his wife Mary II, he brought his pugs, who wore little orange ribbons to their master’s 1689 coronation. 

6. THE PERFECT PUG TAIL HAS TWO CURLS.

Pugs are known for their curly tails that curve up towards their bodies. According to the AKC, “the double curl is perfection.” 

7. THERE'S A PUG WITH AN MBA.

In 2009, Chester Ludlow the pug received an online graduate degree from Rochville University. He submitted his resume to the website and paid around $500 for entry. A week later, he received his grades, degree, and a school window decal in the mail. Although he never attended a class, he received a 3.19 and he got an A in Finance. Chester may have been the first pug to get his degree.

It’s too bad Rochville University isn't accredited. The whole thing was a stunt pulled by a website called GetEducated.com. The website reviews online colleges to protect students from being duped by diploma mill fraud. So while Chester the pug has a diploma, you won’t see him getting a job very soon (unless that job is acting in cute commercials). 

8. THERE WAS A SECRET ORGANIZATION NAMED AFTER THE DOG.

Around 1740, Roman Catholics formed a secret fraternal group called the Order of the Pug. The Pope forbad Catholics from joining the Freemasons, so this group formed as a replacement. They chose the pug as their symbol because the dogs were loyal and trustworthy. The Grand Master was a man, but each division of the group had two “Big Pugs” that were always one male and one female. 

To join, members were expected to prove their devotion by kissing the rear of the Grand Pug under his tail (luckily, the Grand Pug was porcelain). Other wacky habits included wearing dog collars, scratching at the lodge door for entry, and barking loudly. 

This outcome probably wasn’t the result anyone was expecting from the freemason ban, so this new, stranger group got banned in several regions, until ultimately fizzling out. Probably due to a lack of people willing to kiss a pug’s posterior.  

9. JOSEPHINE BONAPARTE'S PUG DIDN'T MESS AROUND.


iStock/Camrocker

Napoleon’s wife Josephine had a pet pug named Fortuné that she loved so much that she refused to let the dog sleep anywhere but in her bed. It’s rumored that when Napoleon entered the bed with his new wife for the first time, her pug bit him on the leg. 

10. THEY'VE GOT ROYAL CONNECTIONS IN THE UK, TOO.

Long before Queen Elizabeth II met her first corgi, Queen Victoria was the top British dog fancier, and she loved pugs. Victoria was such a dog lover that she also banned the practice of cropping ears, enabling pug owners to enjoy their pups’ velvety ears in all their glory.

11. THEIR SHORT NOSES CAUSE SOME TROUBLE.


iStock/iamzereus

Pugs are brachycephalic, meaning their noses are pushed in more than other dogs. While cute, these smushed faces can lead to some breathing problems. Their facial structure makes it difficult to take long and deep breaths, which is why you might hear a pug snuffling while running around. The dogs are still very energetic, but they might not be the best swimmers and may have trouble on airplanes

12. PUGS ARE MADE TO BE COMPANIONS.

Pugs are excellent pets because of their adaptable personality. Whether you like to stay at home or enjoy the outdoors, the little dogs will be up for anything. Bred to be companions, their favorite place is right by your side.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

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