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A purr is a sound made by all species of felids and is a part of cat communication. It varies between cats (for example by loudness and tone), and from species to species, but can be characterized as a tonal buzzing. Domestic cats purr in a frequency of 25 to 150 vibrations per second. Eklund, Peters & Duthie (2010), comparing purring in a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and a domestic cat (Felis catus) found that the cheetah purred with an average frequency of 20.87 Hz (egressive phases) and 18.32 Hz (ingressive phases), while the much smaller domestic cat purred with an average frequency of 21.98 Hz (egressive phases) and 23.24 Hz (ingressive phases). Schötz & Eklund (2011) studied purring in four domestic cats and found that the fundamental frequency varied between 20.94 and 27.21 Hz for egressive phases and between 23.0 and 26.09 Hz for ingressive phases. Schötz & Eklund (2011) also observed considerable variation between the four cats as regards relative amplitude, duration and frequency between egressive and ingressive phases, but that this variation generally occurred within the same general range. For film clips of purring waveforms, see purring.org.
The term "purring" has been used liberally in literature, and it has been claimed that viverrids (civet, mongoose, genet), bears, badgers, hyaenas (et cetera) purr. Other animals that have been said to purr are rabbits, squirrels, guinea pigs, tapirs, ring-tailed lemurs, elephants, raccoons and gorillas while eating. However, using a strict definition of purring that continuous sound production must alternate between pulmonic egressive and ingressive airstream (and usually go on for minutes), Peters (2002), in an exhaustive review of the scientific literature, reached the conclusion that until then only ‘purring cats’ (Felidae) and two species of genets, Genetta tigrina, and most likely also Genetta genetta, had been documented to purr.
Although purring is a universally recognized phenomenon, the mechanism by which cats purr is elusive. This is partly because the cat has no unique anatomical feature that is clearly responsible for the sound.
One hypothesis, backed by electromyographic studies, is that cats produce the purring noise by using the vocal folds and/or the muscles of the larynx to alternately dilate and constrict the glottis rapidly, causing air vibrations during inhalation and exhalation. Combined with the steady inhalation and exhalation of air as the cat breathes, a purring noise is produced with strong harmonics. Purring is sometimes accompanied by other sounds, though this varies from cat to cat; in the audio samples that accompany this article, the first cat is only purring, while the vocal production of the second cat contains low level outbursts sometimes characterized as "lurps" or "yowps".
It was, until recent times, believed that only the cats of the Felis genus could purr. However, felids of the Panthera genus (Tiger, Lion, Jaguar and Leopard) also produce sounds similar to purring, but only when exhaling. The subdivision of the Felidae into ‘purring cats’ on the one hand and ‘roaring cats ’ (i.e. non-purring) on the other, originally goes back to Owen (1834/1835) and was definitely introduced by Pocock (1916), based on a difference in hyoid anatomy. The ‘roaring cats’ (lion, Panthera leo; tiger, P. tigris; jaguar, P. onca; leopard, P. pardus) have an incompletely ossified hyoid, which according to this theory, enables them to roar but not to purr. On the other hand, the snow leopard (Uncia uncia, or P. uncia), as the fifth felid species with an incompletely ossified hyoid, purrs (Hemmer, 1972). All remaining species of the family Felidae (‘purring cats’) have a completely ossified hyoid which enables them to purr but not to roar. However, Weissengruber et al. (2002) argued that the ability of a cat species to purr is not affected by the anatomy of its hyoid, i.e. whether it is fully ossified or has a ligamentous epihyoid, and that, based on a technical acoustic definition of roaring, the presence of this vocalization type depends on specific characteristics of the vocal folds and an elongated vocal tract, the latter rendered possible by an incompletely ossified hyoid.
Nobody knows for certain why cats purr, but the following reasons are speculated:
Cats often purr when being patted, becoming relaxed, or when eating. Female cats are known to sometimes purr while giving birth. Domestic cats have been reported to purr when injured, sick, in pain or dying. Purring may have developed as a signalling mechanism between mother cats and nursing kittens. One theory is that it is not a sign of showing relaxation or content, but an attempt at "friendship" or a signal of "specific intent". For example, when a cat is nervous and cannot escape the situation (at a veterinarian perhaps), its purr may serve as an attempt to avoid being hurt. German ethologist and cat behaviorist Paul Leyhausen interprets it as a signal that the animal is not posing a threat.
Scientists at the University of Sussex showed in 2009 that purring, or some purring, seems to be a way for domesticated cats to signal their owners for food. According to Dr. Karen McComb and her team, purring in the "about to be fed" context has a high-frequency component not ordinarily present. Humans report feeling an urgency to investigate and satisfy the cat's needs; to wit: "feed me." However, this variety of purring seems to be found only in cats in a one-on-one relationship with their caretakers. This "soliciting purr" is different from a cat's normal purring. Another theory states that purring triggers a cat's brain to release a hormone which helps it in relaxing and acts as a pain killer. This may be a reason why cats purr when distressed or in labour.
- "Why and how do cats purr?". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2011-04-10.
- K.M. Dyce, W.O. Sack and C.J.G. Wensing in Textbook of Veterinary Anatomy 3rd Ed. 2002, Saunders, Philadelphia; p156
- How A Puma Purrs
- Overview of Felidae
- ^ a b c "Why Do Cats ... ?". Pawprints and Purrs, Inc. Retrieved 2008-08-06.
- ^ a b c "Solving The Cat's Purr Mystery using Accelerometers". Brüel & Kjær Magazine. Retrieved 2010-02-11.
- "The Cat's Remarkable Purr". isnare.com. Retrieved 2008-08-06.
- ^ a b "The Remarkable Purr of a Cat - Why and How do Cats Purr?". cats.about.com. Retrieved 2008-08-06.
- ^ a b "The Felid Purr: A bio-mechanical healing mechanism". Retrieved 2008-08-06.
- Paul Leyhausen in Cat Behavior: The Predatory and Social Behavior of Domestic and Wild Cats, translated by Barbara A. Tonkin. New York: Garland STPM Press, c1979.
- "Cats 'exploit' humans by purring". BBC News. 2009-07-13. Retrieved 2010-05-22.
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- Eklund, Robert, Gustav Peters & Elizabeth D. Duthie. 2010. An acoustic analysis of purring in the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and in the domestic cat (Felis catus), Proceedings of Fonetik 2010, 2–4 June 2010, Lund University, Lund, Sweden, pp. 17-22. Download PDF from http://roberteklund.info here: . The paper can also be downloaded from http://purring.org
- Hemmer, Helmut. 1972. Uncia uncia. Mammalian Species, no. 20, pp. 1–5.
- Owen, Richard. 1834/1835. On the Anatomy of the Cheetah, Felis jubata, Schreb. Transactions of the Zoological Society of London, vol. 1, pp. 129–137.
- Peters, Gustav. Purring and similar vocalizations in mammals. Mammal Review, vol. 32, no. 4, pp. 245–271.
- Pocock, R. I. 1916. On the Hyoidean Apparatus of the Lion (F. leo) and Related Species of Felidæ. The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Including Zoology, Botany, and Geology, vol. 28, series 8, pp. 222–229.
- Schötz, Susanne & Robert Eklund. 2011. A comparative acoustic analysis of purring in four cats. Proceedings of Fonetik 2011, 8-10 June 2011, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, pp. 9-12. Download PDF from http://roberteklund.info here: . The paper can also be downloaded from http://purring.org
- Stogdale L, Delack JB. Feline purring. Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian 1985; 7: 551–553.
- Reprinted in: Voith VL, Borchelt PL (eds). Readings in Companion Animal Behavior. Trenton: Veterinary Learning Systems, 1996; 269–270.
- Weissengruber, G. E., G. Forstenpointner, G. Peters, A. Kübber-Heiss & W. T. Fitch. 2002. Hyoid apparatus and pharynx in the lion (Panthera leo), jaguar (Panthera onca), tiger (Panthera tigris), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and domestic cat (Felis silvestris f. catus). Journal of Anatomy, vol. 201, pp. 195–209.
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- Why do Cats Purr?
- Why do cats purr? Why do Cheshire cats grin?
- The Felid Purr: A bio-mechanical healing mechanism
- Robert Eklund's Ingressive Speech website
- Robert Eklund's Wildlife page
- Robert Eklund's purring page