Our cats’ ability to purr was a mystery for a long time, with some researchers focused on the mechanics and others on the psychological reasons for it. The end results of all that scientific research have produced some fascinating results.
Purring is a natural thing in cats, but it’s also a learned behavior. When kittens are born, they are deaf and blind, but they can sense the vibrations of their mother. They then learn to purr back to their mother.
Most house cats purr when they are content, such as when they are curled up in their human’s lap, happily accepting the strokes of a hand. But those same cats might purr when confronted with something upsetting, like a trip to the vet.
Scientists believe the purr is both a sign of contentment and a self-soothing mechanism. It’s up to the cat to make that determination, but a lot can be gained from context. It might also explain why a seemingly happy and purring cat will suddenly bite the hand that pets it. The purr was not saying what we thought.
The lower vibrations from purrs have also been correlated to bone growth, leading researchers to speculate that the purrs might actually be healing, helping to repair broken bones, relieve strained muscles and reduce pain and swelling.
Cats being cats, there also could be an ulterior motive in those heart-warming purrs. Researchers found a curious frequency in the purr that is similar to the frequency in a baby’s cry. The cats could be playing on our natural instinct to comfort and nurture.
As for how the sound is made, there is some debate, but most experts believe it starts with a structure in the cat’s brain called a “repetitive neural oscillator.” The oscillator sends messages to the laryngeal muscles, causing them to vibrate. The vibrations cause the cat’s vocal cords to separate, and the cat’s in and out breathing produces the purr. Sounds simple, huh? Well, not really, but it is for the cat.
While some domestic cats don’t purr much or at all, they all have the ability. On the other hand, most larger wild cats don’t. The division between the smaller house cats and the bigger wild cats appears to be the ability to roar. Cats that purr can’t roar, and cats that roar can’t purr.
The primary reason is that the throat structures are different, but researchers believe that roaring cats developed their fierce calls out of necessity. The big cats have to travel around in search of prey, and they also need to protect their pride and establish a territory. Those blood chilling roars help them do both.
On the other paw, domestic cats don’t form prides, although feral cats might create colonies out of necessity for food and protection. They use scent markers to identify their territories, and hissing often is sufficient to ward off predators.
The cats’ purr might also be a little gift to us. Research has shown that humans exposed to the sound of a purring cat often relax, lowering their blood pressure and stress levels. Considering that cats’ behaviors often raise our blood pressure and stress levels, it’s nice that they give back.
photo source: Pexels
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