Whisker Fatigue: Fact or Feline Fake News?

The first time I heard about “whisker fatigue” was earlier this year when I visited a new client who showed me to her cat’s feeding area in the basement, where a mound of kibble sat atop a paper plate. She explained to me that she had recently learned that many cats experience discomfort when forced to eat out of deep bowls because their sensitive whiskers are being subjected to over-stimulation.

This made sense to me, and I never questioned it. In fact, when I was caring for another kitty soon after whose appetite seemed a bit off, I switched out the bowl that his owner used for a flat dinner plate, thinking that perhaps this insidious whisker fatigue was the cause (more on this later).

Having not heard of this syndrome prior to this interaction with my client, I assumed that many other cat owners may be unaware of it as well, and I figured I’d write a blog post about it.

However, in researching the topic online, I came upon an article in Boston Magazine calling the issue into question, and calling out the New York Times for perpetuating as fact something that has almost zero research to back it up. I recommend that you read both pieces and decide for yourself, but in a nutshell, the author of the Boston Magazine piece reached out to several veterinary shcools and associations, and searched a number of veterinary journals, and could find no evidence that “whisker fatigue is a real thing” other than the assertion by a general partner at a pet product company that sells feeding dishes.

Me? My jury is out. It still makes intuitive sense to me, but there just doesn’t seem to be any evidence to back it up. The kitty I mentioned above whose bowl I switched out for a plate? He did begin eating more after I did that…but only after I tried some different wet food and placed the plate on a high shelf in the kitchen where his food-obsessed and much larger kitty companion couldn’t get to it. It seems that his problem with the food had more to do with the food itself, and competition for his food from his buddy, than too deep a bowl; I suspect that may be the case with many of our feline friends. This quote from a blog post by Shertz Aniimal Hospital in Texas sums up my current thoughts on the matter:

“By nature, cats are outdoor, solitary animals that we’ve decided to bring indoors and force into our pack. Taking steps to reduce environmental stress  and enrich your pet’s environment are an important part of responsible cat ownership. This may include providing a flowing water source and feeding from a flatter surface. Remember, combating whisker fatigue in cats is just a small part of making them feel welcome in our homes.”

I can see no harm in feeding your cat from a flat surface, beyond maybe a little more cleanup required on your part. Just do yourself a favor and don’t get suckered into paying a lot of money for a shallow pet bowl!