Dogs have whiskers over their eyes for some very good reasons. Mother Nature surely had a strategic design in mind and the scattering of those hairs on a dog's face weren't just placed in a meaningless fashion.
In a previous article, we found some interesting findings on why dogs have whiskers under the chin, but this time around, we'll be looking specifically at those whiskers over the eyes.
Not What They Seem
Some people may assume that those hairs above the dog's eyes are the equivalent of human eyebrows. Eyebrows in humans are there for a specific purpose, preventing salty sweat from falling down from our foreheads all the way down into the eye socket.
Indeed, our eyebrows' arched shape, with a slant to the side, allow sweat or rain to flow sideways towards the nose or sides of the face away from the eyes.
On top of preventing sweat from flowing into the eye, eyebrows also trap debris like flakes of dandruff, preventing them from falling into the eyes.
Not to mention their role in communication. Eyebrows, being a different color compared to our skin, surely stand out. Humans use eyebrows a lot to communicate emotions such as surprise or mild disapproval. The term "raising an eyebrow" indeed is quite popular nowadays!
Dogs do not have eyebrows in the real sense of the word because they don't sweat as humans do, explains Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher in the book "How to Speak Dog." However, some dogs have markings over their eyes under the form of pigmented spots which can accentuate the muscle movements of their eyes.
And then dogs have those mysterious hairs on top of their eyes, which are referred to as whiskers.
A Lesson in Anatomy
When we think of dog whiskers, our first thought goes to the long, horizontal ones located on the dog's muzzle, right on the upper lip. Those are called mystacial whiskers, as they resemble a mustache.
Other than those "mustache whiskers" though, dogs have several other groups of whiskers on their faces and these sets of whiskers have different names based on their location.
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The ones by the back of the dog's cheek are known as genal whiskers, the ones sprouting from a mole-like spot under the chin are known as interramal tufts, and finally, the ones above the eyes are known as supraorbital whiskers. The word "supraorbital" simply means "over the eyes."
A Warning Device
Whiskers, also known as vibrissae, are quite different from other hairs found on dogs. First off, they are stiffer and thicker, and they tend to grow in groups.
Whiskers also tend to sprout from a well-innervated hair follicle that's meant to provide dogs with sensory information pertaining to their spatial location. The term vibrissae, which comes from the Latin word "vibrio," meaning "to vibrate," is used to depict these hairs for a good reason.
When something in the dog's environment rubs against the whiskers they "vibrate" and work sort of like antennas relaying important information to the brain pertaining the dog's surroundings.
For instance, those whiskers on the face can help an animal determine if he can squeeze through tight spaces without the risk of getting stuck, explains science writer Kathleen M. Wong.
A Protective Role
Those whiskers above the dog's eyes are particularly important as they play a protective role. Dog eyes are quite vulnerable to being poked and injured by objects in the dog's environment.
Just imagine for a moment a dog running through wooded areas being exposed to brush, thorns, branches, sticks etc. Those eyes can be easily at risk for injuries such as corneal abrasions which happen when something sharp scratches, cuts, or brushes up against the dog's cornea (the transparent front part of the eye covering the iris, pupil, and anterior chamber).
Thankfully, those supraorbital whiskers sort of act like extensions of the dog's eyelashes, protecting the eyes and triggering a reflexive blinking reaction so the eyes close before something ends up potentially injuring them.
Another Interesting Function
On top of protecting the eyes from being poked by sticks and thorns, those whiskers above the dog's eyes may also help dogs detect in which direction the wind is blowing which can help when dogs are using their sense of smell to follow prey.
Now That You Know...
As seen, those supraorbital whiskers play an important role in helping protect your dog's eyes from damage. Those whiskers are surely very sensitive to pressure!
You may notice this in particular when your dog closes his eye when you pet your dog's head and inadvertently tap into those whiskers over the eyes. This is called the "blink reflex" and it prevents the eyes from getting accidentally poked. Some dogs are very sensitive and may even startle when touched this way, so avoid this area if possible.
On top if this, it is best not to mess with a dog's whiskers. Many dog owners or groomers may pluck these important sensory tools, but according to Live Science, anecdotal evidence seems to suggests that tampering with whiskers may lead to dogs feel confused and suffer from decreased spatial awareness.