Moon’s owner, Cheryl Anne Gardner, did some internet research and found the likely cause: whisker fatigue.
As soon as she replaced Moon’s dish with a wide, shallow one that did not have rims or sides that brushed against his sensitive whiskers, both Moon and her other cat, Rupert, were much happier at mealtimes. Their chin acne, another common problem in cats, also cleared up.
Whisker fatigue is a fairly new diagnosis, one that many (but not all) veterinarians take seriously. When cats have to stick their faces into deep bowls and their whiskers rub up against the sides, the experience can be stressful, prompting them to paw the food onto the floor, fight with other cats or grow apprehensive at mealtimes.
“I think it’s just one of those things where people say, ‘Oh, cats are just finicky eaters,’ and everyone thinks it’s a joke,” said Ms. Gardner, a 51-year-old fiction writer and blogger in Langhorne, Pa. “After reading some articles about this, I was like, maybe this isn’t a joke after all.”
Some companies have begun to advertise their food bowls as “whisker friendly.” One of them is Hepper, which makes whisker-conscious Nom Nom bowls ($39.99, or $71.99 for two), which are one inch deep and four-inches by five-inches wide. They are made of stainless steel, which — unlike plastic — will not harbor the bacteria that can lead to chin acne (known colloquially as “catne”).
“Whiskers are like little antennas for kitties,” said Jed Crystal, an industrial designer and the founder of Hepper. “They collect lots and lots of data all day long, as subtle as wind movement or as big as being brushed by a wall or another animal.”
Whiskers help cats protect themselves, find food and detect predators, Mr. Crystal said, and when they hit the sides of a bowl during a meal, “that repeated stress isn’t giving the cat any additional information.” He added, “We don’t want them to have associations of stress while eating.”
Hepper’s Nom Nom bowls have rounded corners, so that food doesn’t get trapped in a tight place, Mr. Crystal said.
Whisker fatigue is a real thing, said Andrew Roost, a general partner at Pet Fusion, a family-run pet products company that sells feeding dishes for cats and dogs.
Dogs, Mr. Roost said, do not have the same issues with whisker sensitivity that cats do. But, he said, both dogs and cats may benefit from dishes that are raised to various heights, a feature the company says is best for an animal’s digestive health.
Mr. Roost said that his company’s four-inch-high raised pet feeder, which costs $59.95, would be perfect (and whisker-friendly) for a cat or a small dog. There are rubber dots on the feet of the dish, making it difficult for the animal to push around, and it can be bought with a mat that goes underneath, for those inevitable kibble accidents.
“You want the food to go down a certain way,” said Mr. Roost, who has four cats. “Both dogs and cats can have arthritis, they can have trouble bending down to get food that’s on the floor. Imagine you bending down to eat. You want it to be more like a straight line.”
Often, a regular plate will work just fine as an antidote to whisker fatigue, according to many cat owners.
But for ergonomic excellence — and what cat doesn’t deserve it? — there are a growing number of dishes on the market that were made by people who have studied the whisker issue intensively. Take, for example, Dr. Catsby’s Bowl for Whisker Relief ($19.99), the product of an industrial design firm that conducted extensive testing on a cat named Sputnik owned by one of the business partners.
“We took the average whisker rake of cats and designed this bowl so that the food could be eaten by the cat pain-free,” said Erik Strom, the chief executive of Dr. Catsby.
Ms. Gardner, the owner of Moon (a black domestic shorthair), said she experimented with many bowls — including a soup bowl from Walmart — to determine which ones Moon and Rupert (a calico) liked best.
“I put the bowls side-by-side, the normal bowl and the new bowl, for Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” she said. Each time, she said, the old bowl would be full and the whisker-friendly bowl would be licked clean.
The winning bowl in her contest was Dr. Catsby’s. Ms. Gardner has four of them, so the cats don’t have to share. “They’re happier, and they have no trouble eating now,” she said.