Best Friends Blog

Uniquely mysterious

Every morning, I awake with three cats purring loudly within a few inches of my head. What happens next is pretty straightforward: breakfast is their main meal of the day, so within a few minutes, I am measuring out their food, organizing the occasionally needed medication and enjoying the soft feel of fur against my legs.

They could be purring in anticipation of the pleasure of eating, and very likely in order to wake me up! But in truth, I will never actually know why they purr … and that says a lot about the profound appeal of cats. In addition to being comforting, entertaining, often great companions who are at times exceptionally beautiful, at times just plain homely — in addition to all those appealing qualities, cats are uniquely mysterious.

When it comes to purring, the mysteries pile up. It’s not just that no one can tell me why my cats purr first thing in the morning. Scientists and veterinarians do not know why cats purr at any time. To be sure, there is no shortage of theories. It’s all about communication, a mechanism cats use to tell me they’re filled with excited anticipation, to tell me that it’s time I stopped lying around and got out of bed. It’s their best imitation of the alarm, which they’ve seen wake me up on numerous occasions. It’s said that cats purr to express maternal reassurance to their kittens, who reciprocate by purring back, particularly when nursing.

But cats also purr when stressed. A visit to the veterinarian often evokes purring, clearly not an expression of contentment. What’s that about? Other theories include biomedical speculations that purring releases hormones that ease pain or act as a sedative, and that the frequency of purring vibrations helps promote bone density, and that because cats sleep a lot, purring provides a form of low-level exercise.

On top of these unanswered questions, it’s not even known definitively how cats purr. It may be through their vocal chords, or it may be through vibrations of some configuration of bones.

Purring is just one small area of mystery surrounding cats. To me, mystery is one of their most appealing characteristics. There seems to be so much that is unknowable about them. While they can be wonderful, close companions, not all cats are like that. They can be aloof and distant. You will never know why.

Cats seem to know things we don’t know. They carry with them secrets that we may never understand — but that connects us to different worlds.

Gregory Castle
CEO, Best Friends Animal Society

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  • Cydette

    That’s what makes them so special. When they select you even to just spend some time with it makes you special for being selected. If I see a cat shy away from somebody it makes me wonder about that person. They seem to know things that we don’t and intuitively feel good or bad vibrations from people or even objects. If a cat picks you to live their life with you should feel selected by the most discriminating critic that loves you for you, asks so little and gives so much. It makes me want to purr.

  • anne

    My little girl purrs a lot but I have never felt it was out of discontentment or discomfort. When she is telling me she is hungry,she has a fast meow and her eyes are very serious and wide open. She shreds paper when she is nervous or bored, but purring….she is in heaven, her eyes and body language are do not lie there.

  • Petsites

    I often find myself asking our feline companions what they’re thinking and what they’re saying. Much more often than with our dogs, who are decidedly less mysterious! Cats are such incredible creatures. I’m blessed to share my life with them.

  • animalnut

    Yes, a true mystery in so many ways.  It’s also interesting to me that cats feel the need to go out of their way to sit on a piece of paper that you put on the floor.  This may be a vestige of feral cats in antiquity who viewed small spaces as refuges–or something else altogether.  What wonderful creatures!

  • Becky Dodge

    Here’s another tidbit about cats and purring for you – only cats of the Felis genus (domestic cats) and snow leopards seem to actually purr.  They can produce this sound no matter whether they are inhaling or exhaling. The other cat genus Panthera (includes tigers, leopards, lions, jaguars) can produce a sound like a purr but only when they exhale. There is quite a bit of discussion and research on exactly how it is done but no real conclusions. Also, snow leopards, like domestic cats cannot roar. The big cats, on the other hand, do roar.