Cats: Mystery and Majesty
Why Do Cats Put On Airs?
Scientifically, a cat is a furred mammal of the genus Felidae, and species Felis Catus. Beyond this, there are several sub-divisions that describe all the different types of cats, from large wild cats such as lions and tigers, down to our beloved pet cats.
Sometime in the far distant past, the smaller wild cats, such as lynx and bobcats were probably encouraged to stay around the camps of primitive man for rodent control. Out of these primeval cats developed our domestic version.
However, as any cat-lover can vouch, no cat has ever totally lost its wild tendencies. They are not very much at our beck and call as a dog can be. Cats can be trained, but it is a much more time-consuming process, and depends fully upon the individual cat. Not all of them are amenable to training, especially the performance of tricks, which I’m sure they consider beneath their dignity.
They Were Once Godesses...
In ancient Egypt, cats were worshipped as living representations of the goddess, Bast, or Bastet. Renowned for their ability to see in near total darkness, they were credited with the defeat of the serpent Apep, who threatened Ra, the sun god, on his daily rounds. Bast was the daughter of Ra, and took the protection of her father very seriously.
Cats were given free rein in this society, and a temple was built to honor them. The harming or killing of a cat in ancient Egypt was punishable by death. Today’s house cats have not let us forget this heritage: it may well explain their tendency to be haughty and independent, doing as they please, when they please, if they please.
Purr phenomenon narrated by Stephen Hawking
What About That Purr?
Ah, yes; the soothing purr. Music to the ears of the cat lover. All domestic cats purr; the large cats such as lions and tigers do not, at least not in the way we think of a purr from our housepets. They can, however, make a sort of “chuffing” sound, on exhalation only, that serves more or less the same purpose—to indicate contentment.
Did you know however, that cat’s also purr when in distress or pain? Females will purr while giving birth, and a cat in pain will purr to comfort itself as well. It is best described as biofeedback. When our newest adopted kitten came home after her spay surgery, she was in some pain, as the clinic had given her the pain meds prior to surgery, instead of afterwards. (Poor kitty!) So, she hid, and I heard this noise and traced it to her. She was purring to herself, but it was a very different sounding purr than the “I’m happy and comfortable” purr. This sound was much deeper, rumble-y, more like a cross between a purr and a growl. It was a very big sound coming from a teeny kitten!
Purrs come in many sizes
A cat’s purr, by scientific measurement of the sound waves, comes in on average, at about the same frequency as an idling diesel engine, or about 26 cycles per second--it can also range upwards to about 150 cycles per second. The lower range has been shown to be the exact frequency that will stimulate both bone growth and healing. No wonder growing kittens purr so much!
A Poem About Cats
Cats are graceful, for the most part, and carry themselves with a regal bearing. They are special and they know it. Many years ago, I penned this couplet to describe the unique stage presence of cats:
O Kings, O Princes, self-importantly garbed with éclat;
None of you can hope to match the sensuous grace of the cat.
Why do cats go through the motions of "making biscuits" on your lap, a blanket, or in their bed? The alternate-paw pushing motion all cats do when content is variously known as mushing, kneading, treading, milk-treading, making biscuits or making muffins. Sometimes, some cats will at the same time take a part of the subject surface or object into their mouths and suckle on it. Indeed, that is the origin of the behavior; it begins when they are born, and is done while they are nursing to stimulate milk let-down from the mother cat.
As they grow up and move on to diets other than mother's milk, they retain this behavior as a soothing, settling-down-for-sleep activity. Kittens who are weaned too young, or taken from their mother too early, whether by accident or deliberately can become obsessive in the matter. They sometimes develop odd accompanying behaviors.
One of my cats, for example, (pictured at top of page), does not suck on the blanket, but on his own tail! He is about 12 years old, and has done this since he was a kitten. We adopted him as a rescue, so we don't know his early history, but I do suspect he was indeed taken from mom-cat far too young. Nothing we've been able to try has dissuaded him from this behavior. Unfortunately, he is a long-haired cat, and this habit results in almost daily hairballs found on the carpet.
A cat is a puzzle for which there is no solution.— Hazel Nicholson
Anyone familiar with both dogs and cats will notice that the hearing of both animals is vastly superior to our own, insofar as frequency range and low-volume detection goes.
However, dogs, upon hearing a sudden unfamiliar noise will often charge around, tongue lolling, tail-wagging trying to find the source of the noise. Cats, on the other hand, seem to have an uncanny ability to instantly zero in on the source, and snap their heads to attention in exactly the right direction.
What is the hearing range for our dogs and cats compared to ourselves? Well, sound is measured in terms of frequency, labeled as "hertz," and abbreviated as "Hz." This is a term strictly related to the pitch, or tone of the sound, and is unrelated to the more commonly known term of decibels, which exclusively relates to the volume, or loudness, of a given sound regardless of its pitch.
Below is a chart showing the comparative hearing abilities between ourselves, cats and dogs.
20 - 35 Hz
20 - 35 Hz
Despite this keen hearing, cats are also guilty of having very selective hearing. The won't come when called, seemingly not hearing you call them from 2 feet away, yet, they will hone in on the tiniest sound and come running.
Even the whispered 'wfft' of shoelaces being tied will bring them on the double from the other end of the house to "assist" with the process.
The Best Toy of All: A Box!
Two of our cats trying to claim a box. Favorite toy? Whichever one the other cat has! Video by author.
Cats are Aloof, and Can't Get Along?
Many, many people have more than one cat; some have several, and some shelters use open housing for over 100 cats. As with any group of animals living together (including humans!), there are bound to be occasional disagreements and spats. But for the most part, cats get along quite well with other kitties.
We have 6 cats in the house, and they get along most of the time. However, the youngest two, (just like human children), can be troublemakers and stir the pot, causing a bit of a fracas. It doesn't last long, and is really a way for them to release pent-up energy. We are always vigilant that no one gets hurt. If they start to get carried away, a squirt bottle takes care of it quickly.
In the old days, it was well known that whole colonies of what folks referred to as "barn cats" would cooperate and share shelter, and that females would even nurse each others' litters. They are quite capable of living alone, but watching them interact with humans, and cuddling with people or other kitties soon makes it obvious that being alone is not what they truly prefer.
The common myth that cats have nine lives no doubt comes from their uncanny ability to hear and pinpoint sounds that equal danger, as well as their speed and agility. Cats have been known to escape from places and situations that seem incomprehensible to us. Often, these are incidents in which either we humans or a dog would lose our lives or be severely injured.
Because the cat is small, speedy and agile, he is often able to scoot away from danger, whether it be a toppling table or a collapsing building. Even the marvelous skills of the cat do not always save him from harm, so it pays to be sure our feline friends are kept safe. Just because cats have been known to survive falls from several stories, or encounters with cars does not mean they should be exposed to those dangers.
Your furry, purry friend indeed has only a single life, just like the rest of us, so please treasure it as you do your own.
© 2012 Liz Elias