Here are so many questions our children ask about the mysteries of our universe. Why is the sky blue? Why do birds sing? Why do cats purr?
Although we often fail to provide satisfactory answers to these difficult questions, we instinctively know that all is well with the world as long as the sky is blue, birds are singing, and cats are purring.
We love the feeling of satisfaction we share when our cat climbs on our lap and starts purring. When cats purr we feel calmer and more peaceful, even if we don’t hear the purr, we feel the calming vibration.
Purring gives a feeling of well-being. That is why kittens purr on the second day of life. Purr assures mom that her offspring are in good health. Kittens cannot breastfeed and meow at the same time, but they can breastfeed and purr. When mom hears her kittens purring, she replies and increases the feeling of comfort and security.
Purring involves activating nerves in the cat’s larynx that cause the vocal cords to vibrate as the diaphragm pushes air in and out, creating that musical hum. It has its origins in the central nervous system and is voluntary – meaning cats purr because they want to, and it’s a function of cat communication that is produced when the mouth is closed. Domestic cats and wild cats (pumas and mountain lions) that cannot roar can purr.
As cats get older, their purrs usually indicate satisfaction or pleasure. But also frightened or seriously ill cats purr, as well as women giving birth. Cats close to death often purr, suggesting that cats may experience anxiety or euphoria, as is the case with terminally ill people – further suggesting that cats can share human awareness of death.
When cats purr in stressful circumstances, they can calm down and comfort themselves, like people who sing or hum to ward off fear. Scared cats purr to indicate submissiveness and non-aggressive intentions. Older cats sometimes purr when they approach other cats to signal that they want to be friendly.
Purring relieves pain and increases pleasure – not just for the purring cat, but for any of us lucky enough to hear it. We may not know all of the reasons cats purr, but we do know that they only share their purrs with those who love them.
Ed Boks is the executive director of the Spokane Humane Society.