Whisker stress, also known as whisker fatigue, is caused when a cat’s whiskers brush against the sides of her dish while eating. If you’ve noticed your cat pulling food out of the bowl, throwing it next to the bowl and then proceeding to eat, or if she uses her paw to “fish” food out of her food bowl, she is probably experiencing whisker stress.
Whiskers are extremely sensitive
Whiskers help cats interpret their surroundings. The proprioceptors at the end of each whisker send signals to the brain and nervous system to help the cat detect and interpret changes to their surroundings. Whiskers are so sensitive that they can detect even the slightest change in an air current. They also help the cat determine whether she will fit into a small, close space; if the whiskers brush up against the sides, the cat will determine that the space is too small.
Signs of whisker stress
When a food bowl is too narrow and too deep, a cat is forced to put her face all the way into the bowl to reach her food. This causes her sensitive whiskers to bump against the side of the bowl, which causes discomfort. In extreme cases, cats will even stop eating out of narrow bowls because it’s just too painful for them.
How to avoid whisker stress
Thankfully, whisker stress is easy to avoid by offering shallow bowls or plates that are wide enough so the cat’s whiskers don’t touch the sides. Cat-friendly designers are catching on and you can now find a wide variety of shallow bowls. Look for ceramic, metal or glass dishes. Plastic bowls become porous over time and can trap bacteria. When using ceramic, make sure the glaze is lead-free.
If your cat acts in ways that seem strange to you around her food, she may be suffering from whisker stress. However, any serious food-related issues, such as refusing to eat altogether, require veterinary attention.