There are many questions our children and grandchildren ask concerning the mysteries of our universe. Such as, why is the sky blue? Why do birds sing? And why do cats purr?
While we may often fail to provide satisfying answers to these difficult questions, we instinctively know that so long as the sky is blue, and birds sing, and cats purr – all is right with the world.
One of the things we love most about our cats is the feeling of contentment we share when they climb onto our lap and begin to purr. When cats purr we feel calmer and more peaceful – even if we don’t hear the purring, we can feel the soft reassuring vibration.
So, just why do cats purr? And how do they generate that entrancing sound?
Veterinarian Bruce Fogle, author of “The Cat’s Mind,” posits that the original purpose of purring was to communicate a sense of well-being. This helps explain why kittens are able to purr the second day of life. Purring assures the mama cat that her offspring are in good health. Kittens cannot meow and nurse at the same time, but they can purr and nurse; and when mama hears her kittens purr, she will reciprocate, reinforcing the sense of comfort and safety.
There are several theories to explain the mechanics of purring. One study found that purring involves the activation of nerves within the larynx. These nerves cause the vocal cords to vibrate as the diaphragm pushes air in and out of the vibrating cords thereby creating the musical hum.
Veterinarian Neils Pederson, author of “Feline Husbandry,” suggests purring originates within the central nervous system and is a voluntary act, meaning cats purr because they decide they want to.
Purring is a fundamental function of feline communication and it occurs for multiple reasons. Purring is produced by a cat while the mouth is closed. Domestic cats and any wild cats (like pumas and mountain lions) unable to roar are able to purr.
As cats grow older, the meaning of their purr takes on different nuances. Most often it indicates contentment or pleasure. However, frightened cats and severely ill cats also purr, as do females giving birth. Cats close to death have been known to purr, suggesting cats may experience anxiety or euphoria, states found in terminally ill people – further suggesting cats may share man’s awareness of death.
Animal behaviorists state that when cats purr under stressful circumstances, they are attempting to reassure and comfort themselves, similar to humans who sing or hum to themselves to ward off fear of the unknown. Frightened cats may purr to communicate their submissiveness and non-aggressive intentions. Feral cats have been observed to purr to indicate they will not attack and other cats need not feel threatened. Older cats sometimes purr while approaching other cats, signaling they want to engage the other cats.
A more recent theory speculates purring is caused by the release of endorphins. Endorphins are released to relieve pain or enhance pleasure. This explains the contradictory reasons for purring and balances Pederson’s thinking that purring is voluntary with Fogle’s premise that purring is instinctive and involuntary.
Whatever the reasons for purring, it seems to indicate a cat’s sense of contentment – and contentment is something cats willingly share with all who love them. If you have yet to experience this sense of contentment, visit your local animal shelter and adopt your purr-fect pet.