by Soojin Um
For cat parents, there’s nothing better than your cat softly meowing, purring, and then falling asleep gently in your lap. It’s the very embodiment of relaxation and contentedness. But is it really? Certainly, when your cat meows, purrs, and closes its eyes slowly, they’re often happy and sleepy. But scientists have been studying these feline behaviors for a long time, and they’ve found that these activities may not be what we think they are. Cats may do these things for very specific purposes.
We all know the sound that cats make. It’s their calling card. But what may not be well known is that cats don’t actually meow to each other. When cats communicate amongst one another, they make different sounds. Cats make guttural noises, they hiss, they even growl when another cat gets too close. But they don’t meow. So why do they meow to us?
It turns out that it’s most likely a holdover from when cats were kittens. When a kitten meows, its mother is not far away, she will rush up and tend to her kitten’s needs. As for the kitten, it will continue to meow as long as that garners the attention it wants. In the absence of humans, the kitten will eventually stop meowing when the mother stops responding to it, usually when the mama cat decides the kitten needs to learn to be an adult. But when our cats meow to us, we almost always respond. We give them attention, stopping what we’re doing and seeing what they want. We also talk back to them when they meow, so it is likely cats have learned that the most effective way to communicate with us is by meowing. Fortunately, we don’t have to make baby noises to get attention from those we love. That indeed would be awkward.
We think of a cat purring as a sign of happiness and relaxation. However, cats also purr when hurt or when giving birth, and during other times of stress. Why is that? Researchers believe it could be because purring is a way for cats to strengthen and heal their bodies.
It’s been measured that a cat purr resonates within the range of about 20 to 150 Hz. At those frequencies, vibration can help heal bones and tissue damage. This can accelerate healing, but also build stronger muscles and decrease pain. In fact, vibration therapy is used to help us humans recover more quickly from injury, and even treat diseases such as arthritis. Increased pressure on the musculoskeletal system increases bone density. This is why astronauts who have extended stays in space lose bone mass. When cats purr, they do so from deep within the diaphragm. This causes their whole body to gently vibrate. Scientists believe this vibration primes the body to regenerate healthy tissues, and keep already healthy tissues to stay that way.
You may have seen your cat lying on your bed or sofa ready to fall asleep. His eyelids look like they’re getting heavier and heavier. But your cat doesn’t fall asleep, he’s just lying there with his eyes closed, his head still upright. Is he just daydreaming, or maybe practicing kitty Zen? Actually, your cat is communicating with you. He’s telling you that he loves you.
In nature, cats are in the middle of the food chain. As hunters themselves, they also understand what it means to be hunted. Cats therefore seem to be hardwired to have trust issues. So when your cat slowly closes its eyes to you and remains still, he is telling you that he trusts you enough not to have his eyes open when around you. If you stare intently into your cat’s eyes, he might see that as a sign of aggression. So try calming your cat by slow blinking to him. When he sees you doing that, chances are he will get your message of love and slow blink back at you.
Cats are nuanced creatures. Subtle movements and sounds mean a great deal to them. If you learn to be sensitive to your cat’s language, you can communicate with them in more ways than by just talking. Your cat will understand you a lot easier as well.
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