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Often assumed to be a sign of contentment in our feline friends, purring has been among mysterious cat behaviors for the longest time. Ranging from inaudible vibrations to loud motor sounds across hallways, every cat’s purr sounds unique. But why do our feline companions purr? How do they learn this behavior? And how do they even manage to purr? Over years, science has slowly uncovered the secrets of this typical kitty habit that even cheetahs and pumas display.
The first purr
Cats learn to purr when they are just a couple of days old. Since kittens are born blind and deaf, the mother uses vibrations of purrs to help her babies locate her. The little ones, in turn, purr to let her know where they are or if they need her. Purring in kittens is often accompanied with kneading, which helps them bond, and get the most of feeding on their mother’s milk. Often, these habits are retained by cats even once they reach adulthood.
A mind game
The question about how cats purr remained debatable for quite some time. Initially mused to have been produced from blood surging through the inferior vena-cava, the truth was rather astounding. A cat’s brain contains a unique structure, called the neural oscillator, which helps cats send a signal to their laryngeal and diaphragmatic muscles to vibrate between the frequencies of 25 and 150Hertz.
But if cats have mutated at a cephalic level to acquire this ability, it surely was purposed for something more than a what’s-up between the mother and her kittens. Most commonly, purrs are displayed in adult felines as a sign of happiness and safety. However, there is a flipside to this. Cats also tend to purr when anxious, aggravated or in pain; particularly when in pain. The frequency at which cats purr has long been linked to improved health (and healing) of muscles and bones, lending this tiny predator incredible durability. This ability is probably the source of the “nine lives” myth. It might also be the reason that the newer cat species bred by humans do not display many muscle or bone abnormalities found in the canine counterpart. Cats may also utilize purring as a low energy mechanism to stimulate their muscles and bones, as energy conservation is a top priority, with 60% of their schedule involving naps.
Science is looking to apply cat purrs to help astronauts, who experience low bone density and muscle atrophy upon spending extended periods in zero gravity environments. Humans with feline companions also experience faster healing when injured, and feel relaxed after spending some cuddle time with their furry friends.
So, the next time somebody calls you a crazy cat-lady, remember, old-age may bring you 99 problems, but osteoporosis won’t be one of them.