Why do cats purr? A question that is frequently asked by children, teenagers and grown-ups alike, perhaps because whoever gets near a cat will inevitably notice this famous engine-like little noise inviting us to cuddle!
In Italian, the equivalent of “to purr” is “fare le fusa”. The term comes from the fact that this characteristic sound they make is similar to the noise that wool spindles made, way back when. It feels like a sweet and persuading “r”, repeated and dense. In French, the verb is an onomatopoeia – ron-ron. In Portuguese, “ronronar”.
When we observe and study cat behaviour, we notice how they usually purr to communicate with each other and with us. The true nature of this purring thing is still under debate, as no single organ has been discovered as responsible for this sound.
According to one of the most credible theories, the sound comes from vocal chords and from the contraction of larynx and diaphragm muscles, which are dilated and contracted in an intermittent fashion – about thirty times per second – blocking air passage and producing these fun and calming vibrations.
Cats are capable of emitting this “noisy breathing” from their early days: they cannot meow right after birth, so they use purring to “talk” to their mummy. She responds accordingly, to comfort them and to say it’s all going to be alright. Now this is communication we’re talking about!
When they grow up, cats purr when caressed, when talked to, when someone approaches them, to show their affection towards us, or to signal a state of well-being. In some cases, cats can also purr when they’re NOT ok or when they’re very scared; it’s a warning sound they use to show their discomfort, such as when they’re being taken to the vet.
Purring is a veritable healing instrument for us humans: according to scientific studies, listening to and cuddling with a purring cat is pleasant and relaxing. The sound is perceived by our brain’s hippocampus, which produces serotonin, the good mood hormone, and the result is a beneficial action on our sleep. It also seems that low frequencies can help heal fractured bones and lesions in the tendons, reducing their pain.
Cats are truly magical animals that can bewitch us with their sweet little noses, their affable manners and their unique characteristics. How can anyone not love them?