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.