Cat News: Why do cats purr?

The blog post below was reposted with permission from the author, Dr. Kelly Wright.  Dr. Kelly is a DVM specializing in felines.  She writes a wonderful blog called The Real Housecats of OC and she is a valued member of the Woofy Woo Crew.  We found this extremely interesting.  Thank you Dr. Kelly!

If you are looking for the definitive answer here, you won’t find it.  In fact, you won’t find it anywhere (I have looked!).  What you will find is a lot of speculation from a lot of scientists and behaviorist as to what drives this sound dubbed “opera singing for cats” by Dr. Karen Overall, VMB, PhD.

It was thought for many years that our domestic felids were the only ones who possessed this unique ability to produce vibrations of their vocal cords at 25-150 per second, known to us as purring.  Recently, researchers have discovered that all felids possess this ability, even large cats (tigers, lions, jaguars and leopards, to name a few).  In these cats the purr is different, however.  Large cats can only produce these sounds on exhale where as your average alley cat can purr while inhaling or exhaling without skipping a beat.  A cool website by speech technologist Robert Eklund, has actual sound bites of large cats producing their unique sounds.  Luckily, we don’t have to go far to hear our own felids purr, if you want to hear your cat purr, open a can of “tuna” and savor the sound!

That brings me to the “why” of our subject.  What makes our little furry children purr up a storm?  We always want to believe it is our affections and attentions!  This may be partially true but not the whole story.  It is speculated by experts that cats also use purring as a form of communication with their humans.  Researchers at the University of Sussex feel cats use purring for the art of persuasion.  They have discovered that cats often have several different kinds of purrs used in different situations.  One frequency of purr they have dubbed “solicitation purr” is used to solicit cat’s owners to feed them. Who knew they could be so manipulative? You should be at our house around feeding time, purrs abound through the Wright pride around the dinner hour!  Here I thought everyone was just glad to see me!

Communication, affection and contentment are all happy reasons for cats to purr but the truth is, purring is also thought to signal stress, sickness and pain.  I often see purring patients in my exam room.  While these cats make ME look good by displaying a seemingly happy state in my care, the truth is, they are probably using their purrs to self sooth in a stressful situation.  Due to its reputation as a happy act, the purr is often misinterpreted by owners of ill cats.  Cats in pain and distress come into our hospital purring in their final hour.  Dubbed the “death purr” by many doctors, purring critically ill cats often indicate a poor prognosis.  This may confirm suspicions that the “purr” has many meanings and possibly another purpose.

Could a cat’s purr have health benefits?  We know it to have benefits for people (lowers blood pressure, helps aid recovering patients, etc.) but what about benefits to the cat?  Purring is thought to promote  healing in some studies.  Its effects may also help the dislodge hairballs from the pyloric valve in the stomach!  Purring, in other words, may hold the key not only happiness but health.

You all have a new assignment: make your cats purr!  Purring not only relieves your stress, but also keeps your cat healthy! After all, a purr a day keeps the doctors away!  Hey, wait a minute…….


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Posted by on Mar 2 2011. Filed under Cat News, Pet News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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