Most of us think that a cat purrs when it is happy, however, there is much more behind it, from communication to healing properties.
As much as having a cat in our homes requires a lot of work, we can all agree that they add even more than they take.
Let me introduce myself, I’m Nicole, a researcher at the Stress, Psychiatry & Immunology (SPI) lab at King’s College London, and a cat lover.
I have been surrounded by cats since I was a kid and, ever since I moved to London 7 years ago, I have always been missing my feline friends. Finally, last year I managed to convince my partner to have one here too (keep reading until the end to see his fluffy face).
Our furry friend has improved our lives so much: there is nothing better than a nice cosy evening on the sofa with him next to you, or waking up in the morning with him purring.
Recently I came across an article that explained how cats’ purrs could help human health and anxiety thanks to their wavelengths. That made me really curious and, using my researcher’s skills, I started digging in and reading more about it. There is a lot more going on with the cat’s purr than you might reasonably expect! With this article, I want to share what I have learnt with you.
Let’s begin with a bit of history:
The relationship between cats and humans began around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago during the development of early human civilization in the Middle East. As people started to settle, farm the land and store grains, they attracted rodents.
The gathering of rodents, of course, was appealing to wildcats ( also known as felix silvestris lybica) who decided to stick around. This was not only convenient for the cats but also for humans and led to a partnership of convenience that evolved into a mutual connection. From the African wildcat to the domesticated house cat, the fascinating journey and history of the cat touch almost all corners of the world.
More recently it has been shown that having and loving a cat is not only good for our mood or for getting rid of rodents but also for our health. In fact, studies have shown that people are less likely to die of a heart attack if they own a cat. Even more interesting, are studies reporting that cats’ purrs help people heal.
Why do cats purr?
How cats purr is still not 100% clear and different theories have been proposed. It seems most likely that the noise is produced by the constriction of the glottis — the part of the larynx (voice box) which surrounds the vocal cords — due to the dilation of the muscles in the cat’s larynx and the air vibrates every time the cat breathes in or out.
Cats’ purr is perhaps the most recognisable sign of animal contentment that erupts whenever a cat is tickled or petted.
But that’s not quite the full story…
Purring has communicative, appeasing, and healing properties. It is also known that sometimes cats purr when they’re nervous, very often when they’re hurt, and sometimes when their caregiver is hurt or sick. In fact, several species of felids vocalise in this way. However, scientists don’t know the exact answer to why cats purr yet.
How do their purrs help us?
While scientists are still trying to better understand if cats’ purring can be really healing or not and how that can happen, here are some of the speculations.
When a cat purrs, it releases endorphins within its brain
Endorphins are the body’s natural pain relievers and they can boost your mood too. In fact, they are hormones that cause feelings of happiness, sociability, affection, excitement, and much more. They are naturally produced by the body during pleasurable activities, as well as painful experiences, such as twisting your ankle.
It is interesting that purring not only releases endorphins in cats but can also induce the same thing in humans too. Endorphins help decrease stress hormone levels. Lowered stress hormones are helpful for healing, lowering blood pressure, and helping people cope with illness.
The frequency of cat purring is between 25 and 140 Hz
We all know that cats are able to heal quickly from their own broken bones, and incidences of joint problems and bone cancer in cats are rare. Is it possible that cat purrs can help humans heal faster too?
The frequency of cat purring has been shown to fall between 25 and 140 Hz. The same frequency has been shown to aid in the healing of broken bones, joint and tendon repair, and wound healing. A study by Dr Clinton Rubin and his team showed that bones of older sheep started showing signs of repair after being exposed to 30 Hz of vibrations for 20 minutes, five days a week. Similarly, in humans, vibrational therapy with a frequency between 10–50Hz has been found to not only benefit bone repair but also strengthen tendons and joints. In fact, vibration therapy uses whole-body vibration to enhance physical health and overall well-being.
Cats’ purrs are believed to have similar effects on the human body.
Purring helps the cat breathe more easily
Clinical observations of cats that are suffering from upper respiratory conditions resulting in dyspnea or trouble breathing, indicate that purring helps the cat breathe more easily. In fact, respiratory distress related to heart disease isn’t nearly as common in cats as it is in dogs and humans. It seems that a person with respiratory problems might also be able to breathe easier if a purring cat is nearby. But what has the science to say about this? One study found that cat ownership is associated with a reduced risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Purring as anti-stress and anxiety
If these “healing powers” were not enough, the combined effects of their relaxing presence and their purr make cats powerful against stress and anxiety. Studies have shown that if a person suffering with anxiety listens to the sound of a cat’s purr it may help to distract from the source of their anxiety and will be calmed by the purring sound.
Purring helps with migraines
Moreover, there are many stories of people with migraines whose headaches are eased or extinguished when they lie with their heads close to purring cats.
The reality is that behind all of the warm cuddles and purring, there is an animal that improves mental health by decreasing stress, offering companionship, purring the pain away, and serving as a therapy animal.