After enduring one of the worst headaches in years, which was probably due to going overboard on Fox News election coverage, I actually considered doing something I hadn’t done since 2004 — take aspirin.
Who came to the rescue, you may ask?
My cat Tucker was the hero. Turns out all I needed was to lay my head next to him overnight as he purred away. I awoke the next morning headache free and ready to take on the world.
While this may have just been coincidence or a placebo effect, it did get me to wonder why the purr sound is so relaxing to both cat and human.
Turns out cats don’t just purr when they are content, they also purr when they are in pain (e.g., giving birth or having suffered injury) and sometimes when dying.
Since purring occurs in such different communicative states, scientists do not consider it a true form of communicative vocalization. Instead, it’s termed a form of self-medication.
Veterinarians have known for years that cats are quicker to heal than dogs when suffering injury such as bone trauma. In the late 1990s, Dr. Clinton Rubin and his colleagues from the State University of New York discovered that exposure to low-level sound frequencies helps build bone density. A cat’s purr falls exactly within that frequency sweet spot.
Let’s face it, domesticated cats can be kind of lazy (sleeping an average of 16 hours a day depending on age); so purring can help them compensate for missing good-old-fashioned exercise. While other animals need to go fetch balls and chase after cars to maintain healthy bones, a cat may substitute that by putting his or her paws up and purring.
The smaller members of the felidae family, which includes cougars, lynx and ocelots, also purr the same way as domesticated cats. They pulse the muscles in their larynx and diaphragm. The resulting vibrations come in a rhythmic pattern during inhalation and exhalation at a frequency between 25 and 150 hertz (cycles per second).
Being close to those hertz vibrations may help other species, as well. Experiments conducted on turkeys, rats and sheep placed next to vibrating plates at the same purr frequency for 15 minutes showed a noticeable increase in bone strength.
Scientists are now looking at how this technology could benefit astronauts who suffer bone density loss after dealing with the low-gravity conditions of space.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have an appointment with Tucker because I woke up with a slight tweak in my back this morning. Just kidding. I’m actually going to see my chiropractor for this one (too bad he doesn’t purr).