Purring through pleasure – and pain


COMFORTING SOUND A cat’s purr is often associated with contentment, but it could mean a lot more.

The vet's view
Conal Finnerty

What is Purring and why do cats engage in such behaviour? It’s something I’ve been asked, and the answer is not so straightforward as you might think. Purring is quite a unique behavioural activity to felines and related mammals, and it is surprisingly poorly understood in terms of how it is achieved and why indeed felines engage in it.
Numerous studies using MRI, electromagnetic mapping and behavioural studies suggest that there may be a number of physiological activities happening at once to produce this vibrational and auditory phenomenon.
Amongst them are theories that felines use a part of their brain to produce a centrally acting neurological mechanism in their chest and throat nerves to resonate or vibrate the tissues in this area of the body. Another is that they use a neurological stimulus to the vocal cords and surrounding airway as well as using their sinuses to produce the purring sound. Yet another theory suggests that felines that can purr (as not all species within the feline family can or do) have a softer hyoid bone (a bone in the throat that supports the larynx and tongue) and so can use this to create a purring sound when vibrated.
The more interesting aspect of purring, for me at least, is the question as to WHY cats purr. We are all familiar with the happy lap cat lying content and relaxed on our knee or indeed soaking up the sun’s rays, and emanating that distinctive purring sound. However, it is thought that cats purr for a number of reasons, not just as an acknowledgement of contentment.
In fact, cats are believed to purr when happy, fearful, lonely and, quite interestingly, in pain or recovering from injury.
Cats will purr when relaxed and happy as a means of heightening the pleasure they are feeling. They will also purr to create and maintain parent and offspring bonds as well as giving their offspring soothing. Cats may well purr when they want something or are hungry. It is believed that cats can change the purr sound when requesting something.
Another important discovery is that cats purr to sooth themselves and that this promotes healing and pain relief. Cats often purr after sustaining a serious injury or when recovering from surgery. It is also believed to ease breathing and to slow heart rate when stress is a factor.
Interestingly cats can and often do purr when in labour, suggesting that this may help relaxation, provide pain relief and perhaps communicate with the unborn.
Purring certainly is a unique and interesting phenomenon, and if I know cats, they are onto something when they use purring, as I have yet to meet a stupid cat!

Veterinarian Conal Finnerty MRCVS practises at the Skeldale Vet Clinic in Ballinrobe and Belmullet. Follow the clinic on Facebook, or call 094 9541980 or 087 9185350 to make an appointment.


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