Why are my black cat’s whiskers turning white?

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
Hi! I have a cat named Pepper, he’s all black like a panther. Last month I noticed that he had a white whisker, now he has two. He’s about 10 years old and I wanted to know if the change in whisker color is because of age or if it could be a health problem. Thanks for any info you can give me!
~ Lori

Siouxsie: Well, Lori, funny you should ask. It just happens that we cats get gray hair as we get older, just like humans and dogs.

Thomas: Gray fur is much more noticeable in dark-colored cats and those with dark-colored points like Siamese cats. Tabbies like me can usually get quite a bit of gray or white fur without attracting much attention.

Dahlia: Siouxsie’s 11 — about 65 in human years — and she has some white furs around her face, too. Mama hasn’t seen any white whiskers yet, though.

Siouxsie: And our human Grammie’s feline master, a seal-point Siamese named Tinka, has a bunch of white hair growing in on her face and neck. She’s older than me, but she won’t tell any humans her real age.

Thomas: Dogs’ muzzles and heads start getting gray as they get older, too. Our dog friend Salem lived to be 15, and by the time she died, the black fur on her head and neck had gone almost completely white.

Dahlia: So, Lori, we don’t think you have to worry about your cat’s occasional white hairs. It’s par for the course for animals and humans to go a bit gray as they age.

Siouxsie: As with humans, stress can cause the fur to go gray at an earlier age. If your kitty had been ill at a younger age and had to go to the vet or have special treatment, that would be very stressful for him, and he could get a few gray furs as a result of that. My beloved sister Sinéad (may she frolic forever in the mouse-filled fields by the catnip stream) had an episode of liver disease when she was about 8, and the treatment and trips to the vet specialist did leave her with a couple of gray furs. They eventually fell out and were replaced by black ones, though.

Thomas: We would recommend that the next time you take Pepper to the vet for a checkup, you ask your vet about the white whiskers, too. He or she will probably tell you the same thing — it happens as animals age — but whenever it comes to animal questions, we always suggest you ask your vet.

Dahlia: If Pepper is having other signs of illness or pain, such as sleeping a lot, eating less, hissing or moving when you touch him in certain places, or changes in his litterbox habits, you should definitely talk to your vet before his next checkup. The thing about cats is that we age a lot faster than humans, so an annual checkup for a cat is like a person going to the doctor for a checkup every five to 10 years. A lot can happen to your cat’s body in that amount of time.

Siouxsie: Some veterinarians recommend that senior cats (those older than about 10 or so) have checkups every six months rather than every year, simply because cats age so quickly. Old-age-related diseases such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, cancer, chronic renal failure and the like are much easier to manage if they’re caught early.

Thomas: But don’t panic just because your cat is 10 years old. Many cats live to be at least 16 and are healthy until the very end of their lives. Why, Siouxsie’s 11 and she’s still a very good mouse hunter.

Siouxsie: Awww … thanks, Thomas. That means a lot coming from you, the Most Puissant Rat Slayer! Well, you know, sometimes my hips do get a little sore, but Mama makes sure I’ve got comfortable, warm places to sleep and gives me lots of love and petties to help me feel better.

Dahlia: If you’re curious how old your cat is in human years, we’ve got a chart here. I’m 18 in human years. I’m all grown up!

Thomas: Speaking of all grown up, did you know that Dahlia’s A-Day — the anniversary of her adoption — is coming soon? Mama signed her adoption papers on September 19, 2006. I’m so glad she brought Dahlia home; it’s great to have a snuggle buddy.

Dahlia: I love you too, Thomas. Thank you for all that grooming and snuggling.

Siouxsie: Anyway, Lori. Most likely your cat’s gray whiskers are due to the natural changes of aging. But if your cat should show any symptoms of illness, including behavior changes (like being grumpy or hiding a lot or not eating his food), make sure you call your vet.

Thomas: We’re sure you and Pepper will have many more happy years together.

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