People often assume a purring cat is a happy cat but that isn’t always true. Many years ago, I used to think purring equaled happiness until I came across a severely injured cat hit by a car. Despite broken bones and internal injuries that cat purred. It turned everything I thought I knew about cats upside down. If happy cats purred and injured cats purred, what else was purring used for?
It begins with mother cats or queens who purr during and after giving birth. The mom’s purring has two functions 1) the purring during birth is self-soothing, healing and analgesic. Scientists has proven the frequencies found in a cat’s purr can help heal injuries to bones, muscle, joints, tendons and ligament while providing general pain relief. 2) Purrs are the first form of communication between mothers and kittens signalling, “Here I am,” since newborn kittens are blind. It begins a lifelong form of communication announcing, “here I am” in many circumstances from the contented purr while petting a cat to the “here I am but don’t hurt me” purr of a frightened or nervous cat being picked up by a stranger, including a vet. Just as cats are masters of hiding pain, they’re also deceptive in hiding the meaning of their purrs. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism.
There are as many different kinds purrs as there are cats. Some cats purr so softly it’s inaudible to human ears. If you think you have one of those quiet ones, try stroking your cat while putting your ear next to their neck and listen for vibrations. Other cats purr so loudly they sound like a Ferrari engine.
When my cats Merlin and his sister Coco arrived in their new home, I thought I’d go deaf from stereo purring. They’d come straight from the Humane Society after a tumultuous first year and four different homes. They knew they’d finally found their forever home and draped their bodies over my head and ears. I quickly learned the “hello, I’m here” purr message only lasted a few minutes and then everyone could sleep after that.
Cats don’t purr non-stop for hours. It takes energy to purr. If you sit with a purring cat, they tend to purr while you stroke them, they stop after a few minutes if you stop, but begin to purr again if you stroke then again.
If purring can signal pleasure or pain, how can you tell the difference?
Technically, you can’t. The mechanism for creating any purr is the same. It begins in the brain which sends rhythmic, neural messages to the laryngeal muscles in the throat alternating with the diaphragm at the rate of 25 to 150 vibrations per second (Hz). This building up and releasing of air movement separates the vocal cords to create the distinct purring sound during both inhalation and exhalation.
The only way to decipher the difference between a pleasure and pain purr is to look for other clues from body language to behavior. It could be as subtle as licking their lips frequently signalling gum or dental issues, or nausea. The tail could be twitching in agitation or they might be going up the stairs more slowly.
The greatest gift we can give our pets is to learn to observe their behavior for subtle changes. Are the eating or drinking more or less? Are there changes in their appearance i.e. over-grooming or no grooming? Are they being more aggressive, or antisocial lately? Uses all your senses to observe: look, listen, touch, smell and sense or intuit. Gaze softly into their eyes and ask them, “How are you feeling?” It up to us to play detective. It’s essentially what all animal behaviorists do. I believe most pet guardians are more intuitive than they let on. How many times have you had a sense something didn’t feel right? Trust your gut, it’s rarely wrong.
Sadly, the busier our lives are, the less time we spend with our pets. Plunk down the food bowl, scoop the litter, a quick pat and we’re out the door. By taking the time to know what normal, happy purring sounds like, you’ll be better equipped to recognize painful purring. Observing takes time but isn’t hearing the purr of contentment worth it?