Cats purr when they’re ___ (fill in the blank)

Good morning, Inara

Curious Fact: The purr of the cat, once believed by scientists to originate in vibrations of the blood vessels, turns out to be what common sense seems to indicate: Vibrations in the vocal cords that produce sound on inhale and exhale. The vibrations are controlled by a special center in the brain that is present in many (but not all) species of felines.

However, common sense also tells us that a cat’s purr means it’s happy or content–after all, we most often hear them when they are cuddled in a lap receiving a massage, when they are rubbing on our legs in expectation of breakfast, or when greeting another cat or animal that they like. But in this case, common sense appears to be wrong.

I read today that cats are also known to purr when under extreme stress and after suffering severe injuries, often up to the moment of death. I don’t purr when I’m under extreme stress–why would my cat?

Some theorize that it’s a cat’s way of saying, “I’ll be good, please don’t hurt me!” Others think it means that the purr isn’t really a sign of contentment after all. Experts in the field of sound frequency healing say that the frequency of a cat’s purr is in the same range as frequencies found to stimulate bone growth and healing in humans (incidentally, it’s also in the same frequency range as a diesel engine, just quieter), which implies that perhaps it helps the cat to heal.

But Franny Syufry, at About.com, provides the theory that satisfies my curiosity: She says the cat’s purr is like a mantra, a kitty’s power of positive thought. She compares it to the vibration of the lips in a deep meditative “Ommmm.”

From that point of view, then, the purr is a sort of request to the universe: “Please, pretty please with sugar on top.” The purr appears to release endorphins–hormones that signify pleasure–into the cat’s body, and studies into the therapeutic use of pets indicate that it also signals the release of endorphins in humans who hear it. What a sweet–and effective–way to ask!

Wouldn’t it be nice if humans could learn to make requests in a purr?

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