Why do hamsters have whiskers?

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why do hamsters have whiskers

For nocturnal animals like hamsters, whiskers play an important role. They help your pet hamster to navigate, balance and smell and if you look closely enough, they can even provide subtle signs as to how they are feeling. In the wild, hamsters rely on their whiskers as a survival tool, to alert them to potential predators.

Hamsters have whiskers, or vibrissae as they’re officially known, to detect objects and explore their environment. And whilst it is cute to watch your hamster twitching their nose, the whiskers themselves are sensitive, and should never be cut off.

Below we delve deeper into why your hamster has whiskers, what they are used for and what happens if they were to lose them or have them cut off.

Why are hamster whiskers important?

Whiskers may look inconspicuous when perched on the side of your hamster’s cute chubby cheeks, but in actual fact, they are constantly working as an additional sense for your furry friend.

To make up for your hamster’s poor eyesight, their whiskers have nerve endings on the inside and tiny sensors on the outside, which carry messages back to the brain to help them build up a picture of their surroundings.

Your hamster’s whiskers are controlled by minuscule muscles at each base which are directly connected to the nervous system. By “whisking” them (moving their whiskers in a rapid circular motion), your hamster can quickly ascertain where they are, what objects are near them and if they are in any imminent danger.

Your hamster’s whiskers should be as long as the widest part of their body, to enable them to gauge if they can fit through spaces and in order to help them to balance.

What do hamsters use their whiskers for?

Whiskers provide a valuable tool for the survival of both domesticated and feral hamsters as they use them in order to: –

  • Guide them – Hamsters move their whiskers constantly in order to sense vibrations and touch. Pet hamsters rely on their whiskers in order to move around their cage, to find their food, hamster wheel, and hamster bedding and to prevent them from bumping into things. Wild hamsters, however, use their whiskers to aid them to tunnel in the dark. By feeling for airflow, they can detect walls when burrowing and easily avoid obstacles when it is virtually impossible to see.
  • Pick up a scent – Although a hamster has a good sense of smell, their whiskers work in conjunction with their nose to help them to pick up scents. Hamsters use their whiskers and nose to smell the presence of each other, their owners, and any predators, that may be nearby.
  • Balance – Whiskers plays a prominent role in helping your hamster to balance. As their whiskers are long and strong, they help to keep the body steady. If your hamster losses its whiskers, however, it can become imbalanced, fall over and stumble around.
  • Show emotion – Your hamster will reflect how it is feeling through its whiskers. Therefore, if you peek into its cage and see its whiskers relaxed, then this is a sign that your hamster is feeling chilled out and in a good mood. If its whiskers are pointed backwards, however, it can mean your hamster is anxious, nervous, or scared. If you notice that your hamster’s whiskers are pointed forwards, then they are alert. In the wild, this would also indicate that they consider themselves to be in danger.

What happens if you cut a hamster’s whisker?

Whiskers have sensitive nerve endings around their roots and in the skin itself, so cutting your hamster’s whiskers short is a big no-no. Like human hair and nails, however, the whiskers themselves are composed of keratin, which do not contain pain receptors or nerves.

Therefore, if you do need to trim your hamster’s whiskers because they are damaged, overgrown, or causing discomfort to your hamster, then only take a tiny amount off. Whisker-trimming, whilst it may not cause any pain, maybe uncomfortable for your hamster, due to the shock waves travelling down the whisker to the nerve-endings.

You should never pluck your hamsters whiskers as this will be very painful and may even cause bleeding.
A whisker less existence would be very distressing for your hamster as they use them to sense their surroundings and could become disorientated leading to injuries and health problems. For a hamster in the wild, however, it would be problematic and could cause survival problems.

Do hamster whiskers grow?

Just like the hair on our head, whiskers are incredibly sensitive and thick and therefore they are prone to falling out. The main reasons that a hamster would lose their whiskers would be due to stress, diseases, poor hygiene, parasites, or even old age.

In some instances, if you notice that your hamster’s whiskers are in poor condition and they drop off naturally, then this can be a good thing as it shows that the whiskers are starting to regenerate.

Although the falling of the whiskers won’t be painful for your hamster, if it becomes a regular occurrence then it could be a sign of a serious health problem such as dermatitis. In which case you should seek the advice of your vet.

On average it will take between 2-3 months for your hamster’s whiskers to regrow, depending on the health of your hamster.

Conclusion

Next time you see your hamster scurrying around their cage, pay particular attention to their whiskers. These built in sat navs not only guide them around their habitat but allow them to sniff out food and danger. And depending on how their whiskers twitch, will subtly inform you as to whether they are feeling happy, sad, or playful.

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