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Cats are beautiful little creatures. They have glossy fur coats over nearly their entire body. They have long protruding whiskers extending from their face. Yet, there is one area where we humans have hair that cats seem to be missing… eyelashes! It got me thinking, do cats have eyelashes?
As it turns out, cats technically do have eyelashes. However, they are different from the human eyelashes that we have. They aren’t long, fluttery, or well-defined, so a cat’s lashes easily blend in with the fur covering their face. This gives the illusion that there are not present and makes them less obvious to any onlooker.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Whether a cat has eyelashes or not also depends on the breed! In this article, I will answer all your questions about cats and their eyelashes. Plus, I’ll explain why cats’ lashes are so different from ours, and any feline lash-related medical conditions you should be aware of.
Do Cats Have Eyelashes?
The question “Do cats have eyelashes?” has been a hot topic of debate among cat owners. Some pet parents swear that their feline has long, voluptuous eyelashes, whereas others claim there are none there at all!
However, the answer to this question is easy: yes, cats do have eyelashes. The one exception is for hairless breeds such as the Sphynx, Donskoy, Peterbald, and Bambino. These cats don’t have hair follicles, which is why they are entirely fur-free, and their eyelids are no exception.
Eyelashes are defined as a row of stiff hairs called cilia that grow on the upper and lower eyelids, which cats have. However, they aren’t what we expect, which explains the reason for the difference in opinion. People have very long eyelashes that can clearly be seen. In fact, having long, dark, curly lashes is seen as a thing of beauty in many cultures.
Long lashes are not exclusively reserved for humans either. Many other mammals also have defined eyelashes extending from their eyelids. Think of a horse, camel, and cow. To us, it is clear that each of these animals has eyelashes, as we can visibly see them. Yet, with cats, this isn’t the case; often, there are no obvious strands of hair.
However, unless you have a hairless cat or Rex breed, your kitty will have eyelashes – they just may be a little difficult to see.
Why Are Cat’s Lashes Hard to See?
The fact that cats have eyelashes confuses many owners. Why are the lashes so challenging to see if they exist? As mentioned, cats’ eyelashes are different from human lashes. However, there are several other reasons why many people believe cats are lash-free creatures.
Blends with the Coats
One reason it is more difficult to see eyelashes on a cat is that they have fur over their faces. They have particularly thick hair around their eyes to help protect the delicate eye area and keep dirt and debris out. This can make their eyelashes blend in with the rest of their coat.
Moreover, cats’ eyelashes are typically the same color as their fur. While dark human eyelashes may stand out against some skin tones, the converse happens with cats. Their lashes blend seamlessly with the surrounding fur. As such, many owners mistake their cat’s eyelashes for just the fur on their faces!
However, studying cats closely confirms that some of these hairs grow from the eyelid. All hairs that grow here are considered lashes, so you can see why the confusion arises.
The longer the eyelashes, the more noticeable they are. However, cats’ eyelashes are much shorter than what we typically think of and are no longer than the rest of their fur. This means that long-haired cats such as Maine Coons, Persians, and Ragdolls may have more obvious eyelashes than short-haired cat breeds. How well you can see your cat’s lashes depends on their breed and what genetics have been passed down from the parents.
It is also important to mention hairless breeds such as the Sphynx cat. These cats are the exception to the rule – they have no eyelashes at all. This should come as no surprise as they have no hair on their entire body. In fact, they’re even missing their whiskers! The same is true for other hairless breeds, as well as Devon and Cornish Rex cats which are known for their curly coats.
Do Cats Need Eyelashes?
As with everything in nature, there is a specific function of eyelashes. Their function can broadly be split into two:
- Protection: In humans and many other species, the purpose of eyelashes is to protect the eyes and act as a barrier against dirt, dust, and bacteria. If any debris got into our eyes, it could cause us harm, but our eyelashes make this less likely. They curve away from our eyes rather than being straight to further help keep any dirt away.
- Awareness: Eyelashes also let us know when something is coming toward our eyes. The hairs are extremely sensitive and act as an extension of our eyes. When we feel something nearby, we can quickly close our eyes shut to prevent whatever was near poking us in the eye and causing damage.
Although most cats technically do have eyelashes, their short length means these two functions aren’t carried out by their lashes. But isn’t this dangerous for cats? Don’t cats need long and defined eyelashes to help protect their eyes?
Interestingly, cats have evolved to have such small and nearly non-existent eyelashes because they have several other forms of protection instead.
Whiskers tell a cat when its face is near another object, and can so partially carry out the function of eyelashes but from a much further distance. In fact, look closely at the location of your cat’s whiskers on their face, and you’ll see several extending above the eye area. These are the whiskers responsible for protecting the eyes and ensuring dirt and debris don’t enter.
The fur coats of our felines are also the first line of defense against dust and dirt. The longer your cat’s coat, the harder it is for debris to reach its eyes. However, even shorthaired coats do an excellent job at trapping debris. As your cat’s face is covered in fur, it protects the eyes from all 360 degrees! Their fur coat acts almost as a bumper, keeping the surface of the eyes safe.
Cats also have a third eyelid which stretches along the surface of their eyeball, cleaning their eye and preventing anything else from getting inside. If you aren’t familiar with the third eyelid, it is the thin white layer you might see covering the surface of the eye when your cat first wakes up from a nap. Keep reading below for more information on this specialized membrane.
What Is the Third Eyelid?
A cat’s whiskers and their fur coats are pretty self-explanatory, yet the third eyelid needs a bit more explaining. A third eyelid is scientifically known as a nictitating membrane. This is a thin and translucent membrane that sits in the inner corner of your cat’s eyes. You may see your cat’s third eyelid showing when she wakes up from a nap or is in a very relaxed state.
However, it can be drawn out to cover her entire eyeball and acts as a layer of protection, preventing any dirt and debris from entering the eye. The third eyelid is also well lubricated and can remove any debris from the eyeball. It also helps to keep their eyes moist and lubricated, a necessity for healthy eyes and good vision.
As the membrane is translucent, cats can also still see relatively well when the membrane is stretched across the surface of the eye. This means cats can extend their third eyelid when walking through bushes, for example. By doing this, they protect their eyes from any twigs, dust, and dirt, but can still see where they are going.
Interestingly, humans used to have a third eyelid. Do you see the little pink bit in the corner of your eye? That’s the remanence of it! Although we no longer use the third eyelid, it doesn’t cause us any harm and so hasn’t been bred out of the population.
Feline Eyelash Disorders
Although cats’ eyelashes are not long like ours, nor necessary for protecting their eyes, there are a few medical conditions associated with eyelashes. These are not fatal and are extremely rare in cats, which explains why these disorders are not enough to have bred eyelashes out of the feline population.
However, they can contribute to more severe eye conditions, so they are worthwhile discovering more about. You can learn about the symptoms, treatment, and potential complications in the below sections.
Types of Eyelash Disorders in Cats
All feline eyelash disorders are caused by hair growing in abnormal places. This causes the lashes to come into contact with the surface of the eye, causing damage or irritation. The conditions can be split into three distinct eyelash disorders depending on where the abnormal hair growth is occurring:
- Distichiasis: This is where there is a full or partial double row of eyelashes, which are closer to the eye and can cause discomfort. Additionally, there is potential for these extra lashes to angle inward and further irritate the delicate surface of the eye.
- Ectopic Cilia: This is where the eyelashes grow from the inside of the eyelid towards the eye. Irritation caused by ectopic cilia is typically more severe as the lashes are growing from inside the eyelid.
- Trichiasis: This is where the eyelashes grow in random directions and at strange angles, which come into contact with the eye. Their placement is extremely sporadic, and the randomly placed lashes often touch the sensitive surface of the eye in multiple places.
Symptoms of Eyelash Disorders
If your cat is suffering from one of the above disorders, you may notice that your cat has watery eyes and produces tears excessively. This is an obvious symptom as these tears stain your cat’s face. You’ll need to gently wipe them away with a soft, damp cloth.
Cats with eyelash conditions will also blink excessively, and their eyes will be red and swollen because of inflammation. Your cat may also paw at its eyes due to the discomfort. They’re trying to get the cause of irritation out of their eyes – but this is impossible without intervention. Therefore, if you notice these symptoms, take your cat to the vet so they can treat the condition.
Eyelash Disorder Treatment
The treatment prescribed by your vet will depend on which of the three eyelash disorders your cat is diagnosed with. With trichiasis, cutting the eyelashes back is usually effective, and distichiasis can often be treated by plucking the eyelashes responsible for causing irritation.
However, if your cat has ectopic cilia, it will need surgery to remove the hair follicles. The eyelashes will keep growing back as long as the follicles are intact. As ectopic cilia grow inside the eyelid, even the tiniest amount of growth can damage the eye. Therefore, the removal of these follicles is the only effective treatment option. The same applies to cats with trichiasis or distichiasis whose hair is extremely fast growing.
Cats will typically recover quickly from surgery without too much downtime. Therefore, there is no excuse not to get your cat’s eyelash condition treated. Failure to do so can result in a host of avoidable complications.
Complications of Eyelash Disorders
You must get your cat’s eyelash condition treated. When their lashes touch and irritate the eyeball, it can lead to more severe eye conditions you don’t want your kitty suffering from!
One example is corneal ulcers. The cornea is the membrane that covers the surface of cats’ eyeballs. It comprises three layers of specialized cells: the outer epithelium, the central stroma, and the inner Descemet’s membrane. Eyelashes rubbing on the surface of the eye cause damage to the epithelium layer, known as a corneal abrasion. However, repetitive erosion can cause damage to deepen the stroma.
When this happens, it is known as a corneal ulcer, which is extremely painful for your cat. Due to this pain, there are several apparent clinical signs, including:
- Your cat keeping one eye closed
- Rubbing the affected eye excessively
- Worsening of ocular discharge
- Redness – though this might be hard to notice with squinting
Other eye problems can also arise. Are your cat’s eyes always dilated? Is their third eyelid showing permanently? Can you notice cloudiness or blood in the eye? These are all symptoms of more severe eye conditions and should be promptly seen by a vet before they cause irreversible damage.
So, do cats have eyelashes? Despite what many pet parents think, cats do have eyelashes! Their eyelashes may be shorter than ours, less distinctive, and easily blend in with their fur coats, but they are still there nonetheless. The one exception is with hairless cats who are lacking these stiff, curved cilia on their eyelids.
Interestingly, although most cats have eyelashes, they don’t need them. Cats have their fur coats and whiskers to help prevent debris from entering the eye. Plus, they have a third eyelid which can sweep across their entire eyeball to help clean away any dust and dirt. Next time you’re cuddling your kitty, see if you can spot her eyelashes!