Purring would not have evolved unless it provided some sort of survival advantage. Most people assume that cats purr to express contentment, but this doesn’t explain why cats also purr when giving birth, frightened, or severely injured. Experts have identified three different purr types:
- The purr that signals contentment
- The solicitation purr (a more urgent and less calming purr that cats use when they want something)
- The healing purr
Evidence for the benefits of purring is mounting. The findings of various studies indicate that the vibrational frequency of a cat’s purr may provide healing and perhaps even health protection benefits, not only for cats but for humans as well.
Researchers have found that consistent vibrational sound frequencies of 25-150 Hz, which is the range of a cat’s purr, aid in the healing of bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles, as well as providing pain relief (Von Muggenthaler, 2001).
Purring increases bone strength, speeds healing
Cats’ bones heal faster and more easily after fractures than those of dogs, which is why 90% of cats that plummet from extraordinary heights survive despite serious injuries (Whitney & Mehlhaff, 1987). There is also evidence that cats are less likely to suffer postoperative complications after surgery than dogs, and this rapid healing ability may be attributable to purring (Von Muggenthaler, 2001).
Cats also suffer from bone diseases far less often than dogs, and it’s likely that purring plays a role in this. There are a number of osteo diseases that are rare in cats but common in dogs, including scapulohumeral joint luxations and hip dysplasia. Cats are also less likely to suffer from osteosarcoma, osteoarthritis, and myeloma (a tumour of the bone marrow’s plasma cells)(Von Muggenthaler, 2001).
Dr. Clinton Rubin and his colleagues have discovered that sound frequencies of 20-50 Hz can increase bone density, and when researchers placed chickens on a vibrating plate for 20 minutes each day, they found that the chickens grew stronger bones as a result (Von Muggenthaler, 2001). This finding was replicated in a study of rabbits, during which bone strength increased by 20% after exposure to the 20-50Hz sound frequency, and the healing of broken bones and the speed of bone regeneration were accelerated by this vibrational frequency (Chen, Han, & Yang, 1994).
The effect of the purr frequency on bones has significant implications, given the large number of people who suffer from osteoporosis (bone loss) as they age. Dr. Rubin and his colleagues have continued to conduct research in this field that may yield treatments for osteoporosis and other bone-related problems in humans (Rubin et al., 2001; Rubin et al., 2004; Rubin, Judex, & Qin, 2006).
Additional benefits of purring
Lungs: Research indicates that purring can help decrease dyspnea, or shortness of breath, a symptom of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. One study found that among dogs and cats suffering from myocardial necrosis, all of the dogs had dyspnea, but none of the cats suffered from this condition (Kidd, Stepien, & Amrheiw, 2000). Researchers have also found that in humans, a vibration of 100 Hz (which is in the purr range) can decrease dyspnea (Cristiano & Schwartzstein, 1997; Nakayama et al., 1998; Sibuya et al., 1994). Moreover, the incidence of primary lung tumours is three times higher in dogs than in cats (Miles, 1988).
Muscles and ligaments: Cats suffer from diseases afflicting the muscles and ligaments far less often than dogs, and low-decibel frequencies similar to that of a cat’s purr can speed the healing of muscles and tendons in humans (Von Muggenthaler, 2001). One study found that after sustaining sports injuries, low-frequency biomechanical stimulation prevented decreases in muscle strength and mass (Lake, 1992). Another study found that the purr-frequency vibration can speed tendon healing in the ankle, increasing upper ankle joint mobility by up to 19% after injury (Klysczt et al., 1997).
Pain: Research has shown that exposure to a sound frequency between 50 and 150 Hz provides relief for 82% of those suffering chronic and acute pain (Lundeberg, 1983). Given the pain-relief benefits of the purr vibration, it is unsurprising that cats often purr when they are injured or giving birth.
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- Stuart, A. (Reviewed by Cook, A., BVM&S). (2012). “Why Cats Purr.” Healthy Cats. WebMD.com.
- Von Muggenthaler E., Fauna Communications Research Institute. (2001). “The Felid Purr: A Bio-Mechanical Healing Mechanism.” Presented and published in the proceedings from the 12th International Conference on Low Frequency Noise and Vibration and its Control held in Bristol, UK, 18th to 20th September, 2006. Also Presented at the 2001, 142nd annual Acoustical Society of America, American Institute of Physics, International Conference.
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