Cats’ Purring Says More Than We Think

by Kevin Burton

   Apparently the purring our cats do isn’t all good vibrations. 

    These are cats after all, I should have known. It just had to be more complicated than we thought.

   “We think we know what a cat’s purr means,” writes Stephen Dowling of the BBC.  “It is arguably the most recognizable sign of animal contentment: a pleasurable rasp that erupts whenever a cat is tickled or petted, the soundtrack to countless sessions sprawled on an owner’s lap.”

   “But that’s not quite the full story. There is a lot more going on with the cat’s purr than you might reasonably expect,” Dowling wrote.

   I have always taken the purring of one of my cats to mean I finally got something right; the right food in the right quantity, the right attention at the right time. 

   While that is most often true, with his purring, your cat may be communicating something else entirely.

   “We’re just beginning to understand it and there are more unanswered questions than answered,” said Gary Weitzman, a veterinarian and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society. “While the purr does generally represent contentment for cats, it can also express nervousness, fear and stress. Fortunately, more often it’s an indicator of the former.”

   I also should have known “The Tiny Book of Tiny Pleasures” would get around to the subject of cats purring sooner or later. Here’s what authors Irene Smit and Astrid van der Hulst had to say:

   “There’s good reason to love the deep, melodic sound of a cat purring. Studies have shown that beyond the soothing qualities of the sound, purring has physical health benefits too.”

   “The sound frequency at which cats purr (between 25 and 50 hertz) improves bone density and promotes healing in both cats and their humans.”
   “Scientists hypothesize that purring plays a key role in the relatively sedentary lifestyle of cats. Felines spend so much time conserving energy (sleeping upward of 16 hours a day) that purring might also be a mechanism that stimulates muscles and bones without using much energy.”   

   “Cats begin purring when they are a few days old, which helps their mothers locate them for feeding time,” Dowling writes. “This may persist with some adult cats who purr as they feed – or who purr beforehand as they try and convince a human it’s dinner time. Some will purr loudly when they are cautiously investigating new environments.”

   Cats may also purr after they’ve been startled, or after stressful episodes like being chased by a dog,” Dowling writes. “The more science has delved into the purr, the more it seems to have uncovered.”

    “Researchers have recorded ‘ordinary purrs’ and purrs that were soliciting food from their owners,’ said Celia Haddon, an author and cat behavioral expert.

   “Even non-cat owners could tell the difference. Inside the ordinary low purr was a higher frequency cry, somewhat like a meow.” 

   My wife Jeannette has called me a cat whisperer, which is one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten.  After reading all this I’m not sure I deserve it. 

   With the meowing I can distinguish pain from surprise, anger from pleasure. There’s a meow that just says yes, I acknowledge you said something to me.  I’ve even heard some bored meows from time to time.

   But I thought purring was purring was purring. 

   “Sure, you might hear purrs when your pet feels relaxed or friendly, but cats also purr when they’re hungry, stressed, or in pain,” wrote Melissa Laliberte in Reader’s Digest.

    “All behavior depends on history, context, and expectation,” Tony Buffington, a cat expert and veterinarian at Ohio State University, told Wired. “So it’s naive to think that cats can only purr for one reason—it’s like thinking that people can only laugh for one reason.”

   “Part of the mystery around the purr is we often only notice cats purring when we tickle them in places that they like to be tickled,” said Marjan Debevere, a cat shelter photographer from London who is studying for a degree in feline psychology.

   “Yet cats also purr when humans are not around and the extent of that purring varies between individuals,” writes the BBC’s Dowling.

   “All cats are different, some never purr and some will purr constantly,” Debevere said.    What a shame I didn’t know feline psychology was a degree option back in the day when I chose to study journalism.  I could have chosen it, or just mentioned it as a possibility, to make my father’s head explode

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