Rabbit whiskers are adorable. You can watch them twitch along with your rabbit’s nose, or vibrate when your rabbit purrs. They can even be incredibly ticklish if your rabbit sniffs around anywhere near your face. While they may seem like a tiny and insignificant part of rabbit anatomy, whiskers actually play an important role.
Rabbit whiskers have two main functions for rabbits. They are what keep your rabbit from getting stuck in a hole that’s too small for them, giving them spatial awareness. They also allow rabbits to investigate objects in front of them that are difficult for them to see.
Rabbits can survive without whiskers, but their whiskers help keep them oriented in the world around them. Just like all other parts of a rabbit’s fascinating anatomy, their whiskers help complete their perspective on the world around them. Allowing them to behave like curious rabbits should with their sniffing and foraging behaviors.
The anatomy of rabbit whiskers
Whiskers, also called vibrissae, are a type of stiff and thick hair that is found on many different types of animals. These hairs are set deep into the follicles on a rabbit’s skin, much deeper than the follicles for typical fur or hair. These special follicles also have extra sensitive nerves that are triggered whenever the rabbit’s whiskers move. They are sensitive to very delicate touches so your rabbit can use their whiskers to get information about their surroundings.
Rabbit whiskers are arranged in a grid-like pattern along their lips and cheeks. There are also some additional whiskers along a rabbit’s eyelids. The whiskers toward the front of a rabbit’s nose are very short and almost unnoticeable. The whiskers then get longer and longer toward the back of the rabbit’s cheeks. These whiskers will be as long or, in some cases, longer than the width of the rabbit’s body.
The purpose of rabbit whiskers
Rabbit whiskers are used to give a rabbit spatial awareness of their surroundings and to make up for blind spots that result from a rabbits peculiar eyesight. The varying lengths of their whiskers serve different functions for rabbits as they navigate their world through touch.
To measure the space of an opening
The longer whiskers along rabbit cheeks help a rabbit to understand the width of tunnels and spaces they are heading into, so they can know if they can fit through it. Because the whiskers are the width of a rabbit’s body, they play a role in keeping rabbits from getting stuck in holes and tunnels that may fit a rabbit’s head, but not their whole body. This inevitably helped rabbits in the wild as they navigated their burrows underground.
To find objects near their nose and face
Rabbit eyes are located on the sides of their head. This means that they have a blind spot in front of their nose. Rabbit’s are also farsighted, a defense mechanism that allows rabbits to spot predators early, but makes it difficult for them to identify objects in front of them using sight.
Whiskers, and a rabbit’s great sense of smell, allow rabbits to easily locate objects that are nearby. The short whiskers on their lips and cheeks let rabbits identify objects by touch so they don’t have to rely on their eyesight.
To move around in the dark
Rabbit eyesight works best in situations with dim light. So the light that naturally occurs around dawn and dusk is most advantageous for rabbits, not the dark of night. While rabbits can see slightly better in dark situations than humans can, they are not a type of animal that has night vision.
Whiskers help rabbits to maintain spatial awareness and navigate more easily in the dark. The shorter whiskers on the front of a rabbit’s face can help prevent them from tripping over objects, while the longer whiskers help the rabbit maintain a spatial awareness and don’t find themselves stuck in a place that’s too narrow when it’s too dark for them to see.
To provide some protection for their eyes
The long whiskers over rabbit eyelids also give some very basic protection to their eyes. They can function like extra eyelashes, blocking some debris from getting into their eyes. They are not the most effective way for rabbits to protect their eyes, but since rabbits have an extra membrane to keep their eyes protected (called the third eyelid), their eyes are rarely bothered by external debris.
Why do some rabbits have curled whiskers?
Not all rabbits have those straight, easily identifiable whiskers. You might notice that your rabbit’s whiskers seem kinked or even curl in on themselves. Sometimes this is because the whiskers are damaged. Whiskers that have been singed or treated roughly may end up bent or develop a curl at the tips.
However, more commonly curled whiskers are seen in Rex rabbits. Rex and Mini Rex rabbits have genes that cause their whiskers to be thinner than other rabbits and to curl in at the tips. Sometimes they curl in so far that they irritate the rabbit’s eyes, in which case they will need to be trimmed occasionally. Rex rabbits and Mini Rex rabbits are some of the only short-haired breeds of rabbits, but it’s believed if they had longer fur, their hairs would also be curly like their whiskers.
Rex rabbit whiskers are also usually weaker than other rabbits. It’s not too uncommon for their whiskers to fall out entirely, leaving you with a whisker-less rabbit. It’s also more common for the whiskers to accidentally fall out if they’re pulled on a little hard during grooming or petting sessions.
Do rabbits NEED their whiskers?
Rabbits don’t absolutely need their whiskers, but cutting off a rabbits whiskers would essentially cause them to lose one of their senses. There is no doubt that having whiskers has been an evolutionary advantage for rabbits. It has allowed them to complete their perception of their surroundings while freeing up their eyesight. This allows them to constantly be on the lookout for predators in the distance.
For pet rabbits it may not be as necessary for their survival, but it would significantly challenge and change the way a rabbit perceives the world. A lack of whiskers for rabbits would mean they have a limited ability to use touch to help them identify anything. It would be similar to the way we humans feel things with our hands to get more information about objects through touch. We would still be able to function and go through daily life, but it would significantly change the way we interact with the world around us.
Does it hurt rabbits to get their whiskers cut
Rabbit whiskers are just another type of hair. There are no nerves along the length of the whisker. The sense of touch works by triggering the sensitive nerves deep inside the whisker’s hair follicle. So pulling out the whiskers of a rabbit would cause pain, but snipping off the whiskers would not be painful for a rabbit.
However, despite this you do not want to snip the whiskers off your rabbit. That would be taking away one of the senses that your rabbit relies on in their daily life. They are more likely to get stuck in areas where they can’t fit, and they may have more difficulty identifying objects close up (if you also snip the shorter whiskers).
What if a rabbit’s whiskers are accidentally cut or damaged
Accidents can happen causing whiskers to be damaged or cut. In these cases, it is a relief to know that rabbits cannot feel pain in their whiskers. It’s also good to know that rabbit whiskers can and do grow back. So it’s not permanent damage. Just try to be careful and keep your rabbit out of trouble in the future.
In fact, rabbits will occasionally shed whiskers along with their seasonal coat change. While rabbits typically will not shed all of their whiskers at once, it’s not a big deal to find them losing some whiskers when they are being groomed.
Sometimes rabbit whiskers get damaged and start to curl in on the ends. In these cases, it’s actually a good idea to just snip the tip off of the curled whiskers. This can help to stimulate healthy growth in the damaged hairs.
What if a rabbit’s whiskers are falling out?
Sometimes as a rabbit ages they start to lose their whiskers. You may see a thinning of fur on your rabbit in general during this time also. Since whiskers are really just another type of hair on your rabbit, it’s not unusual for them to be a casualty of the aging process. This gradual process is nothing to be alarmed about and is natural in elderly rabbits.
If your rabbit is losing their whiskers and they are not elderly, then they may have some kind of skin condition that causes fur loss. This is usually related to general fur loss in rabbits, and would not target the whisker hairs specifically. If this is the case with your rabbit, it’s important for you to contact your veterinarian to treat any skin condition your rabbit has. The exception here is for Rex rabbits, who have weaker whiskers and do sometimes lose them do to their genetics.
- Frank L. Rice Ajuan Mance Bryce L. Munger. “A comparative light microscopic analysis of the sensory innervation of the mystacial pad. I. Innervation of vibrissal follicle‐sinus complexes.” J. Comp. Neurol., 252: 154-174. 1986. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/cne.902520203.
- Maik C. Stüttgen, Johannes Rüter and Cornelius Schwarz. “Two Psychophysical Channels of Whisker Deflection in Rats Align with Two Neuronal Classes of Primary Afferents.” Journal of Neuroscience. July 2006. https://www.jneurosci.org/content/26/30/7933.
- Michael Brecht, Bruno Preilowski, Michael M. Merzenich. “Functional architecture of the mystacial vibrissae.” Behavioral Brain Research, Vol. 84 Iss.1-2, March 1997, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432897833281?via%3Dihub.