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Do we really know why cats purr?

by Editor CTS

Purring in cats is
quite common. While you may have seen a domesticated cat at your house or
 in the neighbourhood purr, there is documented evidence of even larger
cats such as tigers, lions, panthers and cheetahs which have been found purring
in the wild. While cat owners often take purring as a good sign and end up
lathering the feline with loads of attention and ‘awwwwwws’, the fact remains
that no one really knows why cats purr. So, although, the common cat got
domesticated into human settlements somewhere around 10,000 years ago, there is
very little that we actually know about why they exhibit such behaviour. Modern
scientific methods continue to be used to determine, what might seem to a
trivial question. But all studies so far have only ended up adding more more
speculated reasons as to why cats purr.

Before we tell you to
possible reasons for purring of cats, let us look at the question HOW do cats
purr? Initially researchers had theorized that cats have a separate organ for
purring. But when no such organ was found, an alternate theory emerged that the
purr was caused by blood passing through a vein in the abdomen or as a
by-product of the sound of blood hitting the aorta artery in the throat of the
cat. However, it was only about a decade ago that studies revealed that the
purring sound is brought by the combined action of the diaphragmatic and
laryngeal muscles, when triggered by intermittent signaling of neural
oscillator. Put simply, this means that cat’s brain signals muscles in the
voice box to vibrate thereby allowing them to function as valve for air flowing
due to the action of the diaphragm, thus producing a purr! The interesting part
is that a domesticated cat (and its close relatives) can purr while inhaling as
well as when exhaling whereas larger cats such as lions, tigers, panthers etc.
purr only when exhaling. Now that we know for sure, how cats manage to purr, we
will move onto the reasons they purr.

Firstly, purring in
cats is attributed to their way of garnering attention or indicating hunger to
their owners. Although, this is a popular theory, it is also more of a ‘cat
owner’ explanation and therefore, highly biased. It is likely that cats purr at
certain times of the day, which might coincide with their feeding times, making
the owner that the cat is hungry. It could also be the case that cats are well
aware that their owners give them food when they purr, which also means that we
have sufficient evidence that cats (by purring) have devised a mechanism to
manipulate actions of their owners to suit their needs. Well, as interesting as
this sounds, it does not quite explain why wild cats purr.

Moving onto the
second and equally well accepted theory that the purpose of purring is quite
versatile and could mean anything from contentment to fear, from pain to
anxiety or could just be a way to communicate with its young ones, depending on
the situation the cat is in. The theory for purring as a way to demonstrate
emotions can explain various scenarios such as a purring during a regular visit
to the veterinarian clinic or when that seen when cats are recovering from an
injury. A nursing mother may purr near her newborn kittens to establish a bond
with them or even instill a sense of security and comfort among her litter.

What if we told you
that all it took to heal a broken bone was a lot of talking to yourself or your
family. Well, unfortunately we can’t do that but apparently cats can! This
interesting theory emerged from a research carried out at the University of
California, which emphasized on the self-healing powers of cats. How do they do
it? Well, you might be well aware that cats are good at conserving energy,
quite evident by their long hours of rest and sleep. But their lack of activity
should also mean that they should have reduced bone density. Yet, they don’t.
 Studies revealed that the 25 Hz frequency of purring in cats is a good
stimulus for bones to regain their integrity or for muscular cells to recover
from atrophy, without spending a lot of energy.

Thus, the simply
curiosity of why and how cats purr is now leading the way as candidate
treatment for spaceflight osteopenia, or the bone loss astronauts face while
spending time in conditions of zero gravity.

Here is a fun video of a big cat purring, enjoy!

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Megan July 14, 2014 - 5:47 am

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coffeetablescience July 14, 2014 - 11:05 am

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