Why do cats purr?  The answer is stranger than you think

From wild cheetahs and pumas to the tiniest furball, almost everyone cats It can purr, and just like a dog’s tail wagging, it’s a sure sign that everything in that kitty’s life is fine right now. Or is that it?

It turns out that the most ubiquitous of feline noises is a lot more mysterious than you might imagine. We don’t even know for sure how the noise is made, let alone why or what it means. Add to that the strange effects this tiny rumble has on both cats and their owners, and purring is a phenomenon that has long puzzled scientists.

First things first: it doesn’t always mean a cat is happy.

Why do cats purr?

It’s probably the first, perhaps the only, piece of unequivocal feline communication we learn as humans: a purring cat is a happy cat. That’s definitely true – sometimes.

To assume that this is always the case would be a mistake, said Tony Buffington, a cat expert and veterinarian at Ohio State University. cabling back in 2015: “All behavior depends on history, context and expectations,” he explained. “It is naive to think that cats can only purr for one reason; It’s like thinking that people can only laugh for one reason.”

Just like we can laugh to relieve tension or surprise, a cat’s purr can convey a wide range of emotions. Most of the time it can indicate satisfaction, but not always: sometimes it indicates nervousness or fear; other times it is a sign of stress.

“I’ve seen many cats purr when they’re dying and when they’re put to sleep,” said photographer and cat behavior specialist Marjan Debevere. bbc future in 2018. “The vet will say something like ‘They were purring all the way,’ and people assume they’re happy when they purr. That’s not always the case.”

In other words, purring alone can mean almost anything. In fact, the first purr a kitten makes, at just a few days old, has nothing to do with happiness at all; actually, it’s more of a reference beacon, so his mother cat can find them for feeding time. For some kittens, that purr stays with them for life: “Researchers have recorded ‘ordinary purrs’ and purrs requesting food from their owners,” author and feline behavior expert Celia Haddon told the BBC.

Part of the problem with figuring out this happy buzz is that, unlike dogs, cats have been relatively ignored in the study of animal behavior and communication. Investigators report much more interest in studies of canine than feline behavior, a discrepancy that, to some degree, boils down to practical reasons, like the natural obedience of dogs versus cats…well, not that.

However, the experts also point to our different expectations for cats compared to dogs. As a general rule, don’t wait cats to be affectionate or talkative, and let’s face it, a scared or angry pet kitty is generally easier to deal with than a panicked Doberman, so historically there hasn’t been much motivation to try to figure out what they’ve been telling us.

That started to change, but only recently: “We’re starting to get it,” Gary Weitzman, a veterinarian and chief executive of the San Diego Humane Society, told the BBC, “and there are more unanswered questions than answers.”

Some of the most intriguing questions have nothing to do with your cat’s emotional state at all. “In the early 2000s we hypothesized that purring has other purposes besides [communication]Weitzmann said. “It is likely that the purr has communicative, calming and healing properties.”

The healing power of a purr

Yes, you read that right: a purr can have healing properties. The frequency of the vibrations that cause the telltale sound ranges from around 20 Hz to 150 Hz, and “purring frequencies correspond to vibrational/electrical frequencies used in the treatment of bone growth/fractures, pain, edema, muscle growth/sprain , joint flexibility, dyspnea and wounds”, as an article from 2001 he pointed

It’s not as crazy as it seems. Although studies have not yet confirmed the effect in cats, Yes we know that low-intensity vibrations can promote the growth of connective tissue and blood vessels in injured mice, and other studies have shown that vibratory therapies at frequencies around 30 Hz can improve bone density in humans.

That led some researchers to suggest that your kitty’s contented purr may serve as a kind of self-therapy after injury or stress. Not something you’ll read about in the scientific literature, but some cat enthusiasts I’ll even tell you they’ve seen their fuzzballs use this “purr therapy” on their friends, rumbling those magical frequencies into an injured companion.

Evolutionarily speaking, it’s ingenious. Cats can easily spend up to 18 hours a day asleep, only occasionally getting up for a manic half hour or so to zoom around kill little toys and bugs — and as it turns out, that’s probably not the best routine for promoting bone and muscle health. With purring, the animals may have figured out a way to cheat leg day, so to speak: the vibrations that hum through their little bodies act as an unconscious, low-energy way of avoiding brittle bones and weakened tissue from his life mostly sedentary. lives.

The master manipulation of a purr

So, clearly there’s more to a cat’s purr than meets the eye or, er, ear. But it turns out that the therapeutic effects of sound go even deeper than physique: “I think purring has a great benefit for humans,” Weitzman said. “Physiological benefits aside, we have always responded to the psychological effects of purring. It calms us down and pleases us, like watching the waves on the beach.”

As relaxing, and perhaps vibrationally advantageous, is the feeling of petting a purring, happy cat as it is to live with one of the little furmonsters. It has been shown to radically reduce your risk of death from heart attack or disease. Nor is it just an effect of having a pet: for example, no such benefit of having a dog (famous for not purring) has been shown.

However, don’t think that your kitty is purring in your lap simply out of the goodness of her own heart. Cats have long shown that they are a kind of evil genius species, who else would meow on purpose to matches the sound of a baby crying just to better attract the attention of its owner? – and it turns out that their purrs are no exception to the rule.

“In the morning, a loud purr, along with patting or rubbing on the human face, can be used to wake a human up for breakfast,” Haddon said. “Most of us feed the cat before we feed ourselves, which shows how effective their communication is.”

And what makes its purrs so irresistible is particularly sneaky: when a cat wants something from us, it can embed unusual high frequency call in the normally low rumble. It’s like a kind of subliminal aural advertising: “Embedding a scream within a call that we normally associate with satisfaction is a pretty subtle means of eliciting a response,” said Karen McComb, a professor of animal behavior and cognition at the University of California. Sussex. BBC Science Focus Magazineand “purring is probably more acceptable to humans than openly meowing.”

However, if you feel hurt or betrayed by that information, know this: cats can use their purrs to manipulate our emotions and modify our behavior to their will, but we love them for it. “We respond to a cat’s purr as a calming stimulus, and we may have genetically selected for cats with a greater propensity to purr,” Weitzman said.

In other words: you asked for it, fool. You just can’t fight the purr of a happy cat, so why try? Bow down to your furry lords, you puny human!

All “explanatory” articles are confirmed by fact-checkers to be correct at the time of publication. Text, images, and links can be edited, removed, or added at a later date to keep information up to date.