The Whiskers on Your Maltese: Form Versus Function

You’re playing with your Maltese one day and reach down to pat its head. You give a good ruffle and boop the nose. The dog licks its nose. You go to poke it again, but you notice something poking out the sides of your dog’s snout… Whiskers! Stiff, silvery hairs protruding out that have always been there but are hard to see against the typical white visage of a purebred Maltese. And no doubt, anyone who has had to groom a Maltese and had to snip around the facial area has wondered about them.

So do Maltese have whiskers, and what purpose do they serve? Are they safe to cut? All Maltese (and dogs in general) have whiskers that exist to augment their ability to detect their physical surroundings and motion due to the movement of air. They are safe to trim and cause no pain to the dog, though it will hinder their sensory perception and lower their overall confidence.

Whether or not you choose to deal with the whiskers when you groom your Maltese is a personal choice and is often trimmed purely for cosmetic reasons. There are some good arguments to leave the whiskers intact too as dogs have evolved to keep them for a reason. Not sure about what choice to make? Read on and decide for yourself!

The Anatomical Purpose of Whiskers

The whiskers of a dog are not unlike those found on other animals, such as cats and do serve a similar function. The whiskers are also called “vibrissae” and as their name implies are a type of sensory organ that is well suited to detecting vibrations.

The mechanism of such a function exists through the coarseness of the whiskers, which are two to three times thicker than the other hair/fur on the dog. This gives it it’s characteristic stiffness and allows it to detect motion by transmitting the vibration down to the deep roots. A high density of touch sensing neurons surrounds the root of the vibrissae, sending this input to the brain of the dog. Interpreting this signal gives the dog a sense of ‘motion’ in the surrounding space.

Dogs can also use this ability to ‘feel’ around by bringing their heads close to the ground. Because the eyes of a dog are very good at detecting motion from objects away from a distance and not so good with stationary objects close to their face, the whiskers bridge this gap by allowing the dog to gain tactile information of anything ahead of it. The familiar sight of dogs sniffing and prowling around with their nose close to the ground ensure that they are not just getting information about smell, but also of touch.

You might be wondering at this point how whiskers on the side of the dogs’ face can help with what I just mentioned. The answer is that they don’t! Dogs also have whiskers also on the underside of the dog (the chin area) to perform that specific task. It is particularly helpful when identifying objects below the dog.

As human beings, we can tilt our heads slightly to see below us. Unfortunately, dogs don’t have this luxury as they happen to have a rather long snout in the way. Conversely, the whiskers above the dog’s eyes help detect barriers and obstacles directly above the canine.

A common myth is that a dog will lose or have a diminished sense of balance if their whiskers are cut or removed. In fact, whiskers can’t even be attributed to a cat’s good sense of balance, let alone a dog’s. As with many mammals, the sense of balance is maintained by the inner ear.

This misconception probably stems from the fact that both dogs and cats become unsure and cautious in their movement, potentially giving them a ‘wobbly’ gait which can be misconstrued as a loss in balance.

Keeping versus Trimming Whiskers

I mentioned before that there are reasons why you might consider trimming the whiskers instead of keeping them at their grown length for your Maltese. The only two compelling reasons why you might do so are:

  1. Trimming for cosmetic reasons. Particularly for show dogs, every little detail of the dog matters, and this may involve shaping the fur on their face to the exact characteristic that the groomer or owner desires
  2. Keeping the whiskers to a more manageable length, which may assist with the overall cleanliness and potentially disease and health management

Cutting the whiskers while grooming your Maltese because you didn’t make a conscious effort to avoid doing so is fairly common too. However, there is no need to fret. If the whiskers are trimmed or even removed, it can be fairly distressing for the Maltese, although the act of trimming the whisker doesn’t strictly hurt (though plucking them out certainly would).

Just imagine you are cutting your nails and you cut too deep into the keratin. It might be momentarily uncomfortable or painful even, but now you have to contend with a super sensitive and tender fingertip every time you need to use it (which is often!) From a sensory perspective, the trimming or removal of the vibrissae can:

  1. Compromise the Maltese’ ability to maintain its orientation and judgment of distance. Applications of this include receiving feedback on how close they are to their food bowl, toy, ball and so on. This is doubly important when lighting is poor, and the dog’s optical ability is limited.
  2. Cause your Maltese to be less confident and more unsure of their surroundings. In situations where the dog can no longer rely as heavily on their other senses, such as in low light, this problem is much worse.
  3. Cause general confusion for the Maltese, and in some cases might even cause the Maltese to collide with objects they could’ve easily avoided, e.g., hitting a part of the bed or sofa they intended to crawl under.
  4. Impair the dog’s ability to keep their head above the water when they are swimming. Maltese are already relatively poor swimmers as far as dogs go and this could make it worse.

All these reasons point towards keeping the whiskers on your Maltese intact. This is the stance that I personally agree with, and I believe anyone who is not grooming their dog for a show has no good reason to mess around with the whiskers of your Maltese. Plus I think they look cute anyway and blend in quite well with the white color they are known for.

When you take your Maltese to the groomer, just let them know that the whiskers are to be left alone. And if you choose to have them trimmed anyway, make sure you give your dog plenty of time to adjust as he/she may behave a bit differently. It may be particularly helpful at night time to assist the dog by keeping some dim lighting active near their resting, peeing, food, and water areas.

If you are grooming the Maltese yourself and have cut it accidentally, then do not fret because the whiskers will eventually grow back. This is true even if you are forced to clip the whisker (for hygiene) or if the dog has been involved in some sort of accident involving the loss of some part of the whisker. It will take damage to the root of the whiskers themselves (such as surgical removal, or a burn) to permanently stop the growth of the whisker.

Further Reading

Leesville Animal Hospital – “Help! My Dog’s Whisker Fell Out!” – Link:
VetStreet – “How Dog and Cat Whiskers Work” – Link: