Sunday, 23 June 2013

Why do cats purr?

Cats usually purr when they are communicating feelings of happiness, contentment and affection. However, they also purr when they are ill or afraid. My first cat, Jasmine took me completely by surprise on more than one occasion when I heard her purring whilst she was in a highly stressed state being examined on the vet’s table. It was not in any way the same as the contented purr you hear when a cat is being stroked – but it was purring nevertheless!

From a very young age a kitten uses her purr to communicate contentment to her mother whilst she is feeding. The mother cat reassures her kitten by purring back.

From this point on a cat uses her purr to communicate satisfaction. When you stroke her, play with her or present her with a dish full of her favourite food she will convey her appreciation by purring.

Sometimes my cat will jump on my bed purring very loudly when I am half asleep. She doesn't particularly want stroking but she certainly wants to be warm, comfortable and close to me. Other times she will walk right in front of me, or rub around my legs purring very loudly, and this is basically telling me she wants me to pick her up and give her a cuddle. If I ignore the signals, the purring is replaced by loud meows, and indignant expressions until I do exactly what she wants.

Can a purring cat have a positive effect on humans?

Studies have shown that having a purring cat sitting contentedly on your knee can actually help lower blood pressure and decrease stress levels. There is also evidence to suggest that cat owners are less likely to suffer from heart attacks than non cat owners, which could be in some way connected to regular sessions of purring therapy.

I personally believe cats have a kind of sixth sense about when their owners are feeling low for one reason or another. I can recall a number of times over the years that one or the other of my cats has seemed to make a point of jumping up on my lap when I've been going through a particularly bad time, or have been feeling ill – and other cat owners have told me they have had the same experience. It’s almost like they know when you need comfort from them.

There is something about the actual sound of purring that we as humans find soothing, but there is also reason to believe the low frequency vibration given off by a purring cat can actually help ease pain and heal tendons. This links in with yet more scientific research which found cats use purring as a form of self healing as well as a form of communication.

How do cats purr?

This is rather a mystery, but it is thought that as the cat breathes in and out and the air hits the vibrating larynx muscles in the throat it produces the purring sound.

Do big cats purr?

Tigers, lions, leopards and jaguars are physically incapable of purring, but they do make other sounds which indicate contentment. The reason they cannot purr is because the bone connecting their tongue to the roof of their mouth is flexible, thus allowing them to make a roaring sound, but not a purr. In several other species of wild cat and domestic cats also, this same bone is solid, which means they are able to purr but not roar.

Why it should be that cats make this unusual little rattling sound to express contentment, fear and pain is not truly known. However what we do know is that purring is exclusive to cats, it has a therapeutic effect on humans and it is yet more confirmation that no matter how hard we try, we will never fully understand our beautiful feline friends…

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