The life of a rabbit in the wild is one of constant action and tension. They’re incredibly quick, but that’s because they have to be, as a single slip or moment of inaction can lead to them becoming lunch. To avoid that ignominious fate, they need every sensory advantage they can get; thankfully, they have a lot of them. Rabbits have a great sense of smell, fantastic hearing, and, of course, whiskers.
But while those first two traits are pretty self-explanatory, it’s worth asking — what are their whiskers for? And just how do whiskers help rabbits survive?
Why Rabbits Have Whiskers
The most basic answer to this question is that rabbits have whiskers to help them sense what’s around them, from predators to passageways and places to hide. As such, rabbits’ whiskers are really extensions of their sense of touch.
Whiskers extend outwards for several inches and are also deeply set within the rabbit’s cheeks and nasal area. They are typically arranged in a grid on their face in this region, although there are some located on a rabbit’s eyelids as well.
Whiskers come in different lengths as well, with those closer to their nose short while those at the cheeks can be quite long. There are a lot of nerves near the nose and cheeks where a rabbit’s whiskers are located. As a result, even a slight twitch of their whiskers or something slightly brushing up against them can provide the rabbit with invaluable sensory information.
What Whiskers Do for Them
As alluded to above, rabbits’ whiskers are essential for giving them spatial awareness. This extra sensory detail can also help them overcome other sensory limitations, such as blind spots. It is worth noting that another name for rabbit’s whiskers, vibrissae, point to how they work. Their vibrissae track vibrations, which register on the whiskers and thus give them a better idea about the world around them.
As alluded to above, one of the biggest services that their whiskers do for them is helping them find their way along passages. This is one reason why their whiskers are as long as they are, with most whiskers extending outward towards the sides of their body.
Imagine that you are a rabbit finding your way down a dark passage. You don’t have the same kind of night vision as other mammals, so you can’t rely on sight alone to find your way through its dark depths. If you were a human, you’d light a torch or do something similar to improve visibility, but for a rabbit, that is obviously out of the question. Another approach, however, would be to feel your way through the cave with your hands; that, in essence, is what a rabbit’s whiskers allow them to do.
In addition to measuring the size of a passage or opening as they enter into and exit their rabbit warrens, rabbits can also use their whiskers to feel objects close to their face. Rabbits tend to be farsighted so this helps them to compensate.
What’s more, whiskers also give rabbits another way of feeling their way around in the dark. Some rabbits have better night vision than others but with their whiskers, they have another means of finding their way in the dark, finding places to forage for food while avoiding predators.
Speaking of light, dawn and dusk are the best times for rabbits in the wild. These times have low enough amounts of light to give them cover while foraging while not being completely pitch black. What’s more, the longer whiskers can also help protect a rabbit’s vision, basically serving as extra long eyelashes and preventing dust from getting in their eyes.
While many rabbits have straight whiskers, some have curly ones instead. Sometimes this is due to whiskers having been damaged and growing back crooked. Most of the time, however, it is due to genomic variance. Rex rabbits in particular are susceptible to having whiskers that end in curly tips.
It is worth noting that these whiskers are also weaker than most other rabbits’ whiskers.
Whiskers and Grooming
While rabbits do not “need” whiskers, strictly speaking, it is still a horrible idea to cut them off. Your rabbit needs them to find their way and they would certainly feel more comfortable with them than without them.
Again, their whiskers are an essential part of their sense of touch. How would you feel if someone cut off your hand or a bit of your skin? Cutting off whiskers won’t hurt nearly that much, obviously, and grooming them can be painless, but it goes to show that you shouldn’t leave your rabbit whisker-less.
You should thus avoid cutting your rabbit’s whiskers when grooming them. If they get tangled, try and brush them free instead. Thankfully, if a rabbit’s whisker is cut, they can regrow it. What’s more, rabbits naturally shed whiskers as the seasons change.
Just as we lose hair as we start to get older, rabbits can also start to lose their whiskers as they age. However, if they are losing their whiskers and are not that old, chances are they have a skin condition or other health problem and you should see the vet.
As such, if cutting a whisker or two is absolutely necessary, it can be done; just don’t make a habit out of it or let your rabbit go completely whisker-less.
For such a seemingly simple part of their anatomy, there is a lot to know and understand about your rabbit’s whiskers. They are an essential part of their lives, helping them feel their way through dark passages, navigate in low visibility, and have a better idea of what’s around them, from food to predators and everything in between.
For that reason, it is essential for those who own them as a pet to ensure that their rabbits’ whiskers are healthy. You can brush them, but if at all possible, avoid cutting them. In doing so, you can ensure that your rabbit experiences the world as richly as possible for them.