Radio Times/1923/12/14/Why Does a Cat Purr?

Some Nature Problems Answered.

Why Does a Cat Purr?

A Talk from London: By E. K. Robinson.

A question which everyone asks, but nobody answers, is why does a cat purr when she is happy and at the came time often squeeze the hearthrug with her claws?

Now, in puzzling out these native questions, you have to do a little Sherlock-Holmes business.

Because all kittens purr and squeeze the hearthrug naturally soon after they are born, you know it must be a habit inherited from their ancestors; and because all kinds of cats do it, the habit must have belonged to the original wild ancestors of all kinds of cats. You know that these original wild cats would not have got the habit if they had not liked it; but, because at the present day kittens purr more often and loudly than grown-up cats, you know that the habit is beginning to die out.

An Answer from India.

This shows that our tame cats do not get the same pleasure from it that their wild ancestors did. But -why should the original wild cats have enjoyed purring more then our tame cats do?

For years I could find no answer to these questions until I went to India. and there one day I suddenly saw the answer lying on the ground before me in the middle of a sun-baked plain in the Punjab.

I was the guest of a Maharajah and had gladly accepted his offer to see a cheetah-hunt, because I should probably never have another chance. A cheetah-hunt is not like a fox-hunt. You do not hunt the cheetah, which is a kind of long-legged leopard, but you use it to hunt antelopes. We started from the Maharajah's palace in a magnificent State carriage and went several miles along a smooth road into the country till we came to a patch of jungle where elephants were waiting for us. On three we went through the jungle and came out by a group of palm trees, where the native huntsmen were waiting with the cheetah and a bullock-cart. Four of us were packed into the cart, and then the huntsman, who woo going to drive the bullock., asked which of us would take charge of the cheetah.

Being interested in animals, I volunteered; and we dragged the great cat up into the cart by its coller. He had a leather hoed over his eyes and I was given a large chunk of very strong-smelling cheese for him to lick if he became restless, and we started. The cheetah smelt me all over very auspiciously at first, but seemed satisfied and mated its head upon my knee. As the springless cart jolted on for mile after mile over the rough plain, the weight of that great beast's head became almost intolerable, but every time I tried to push it away be growled, so I offered him the cheese and bore the pain as well as I could.

All the while we were travelling in a circle round a herd of black-buck antelopes, which had often seen native bullock-carts and were not scared by ours.

Superb Cunning.

They were nervous, of course; but every time they looked up they only raw the same old bullock-cart still going past ; and so they went on feeding. But our circles grew gradually smaller and smaller, until at last we were near enough to loose the cheetah at them. I unhooded the great cat, while the cart still went on, and at once it caught sight of the antelopes.

With superb cunning it slid from the offside of the still-moving cart and for a few yards crept beside the revolving wheel, keeping so close to the ground that it almost scented to trickle along like water rather than creep over the sand.

Presently, we came to a little ridge of sand, which hid the antelopes from it. Here it stopped and the cart went on. With flattened head and ears bent back, the cheetah peered at its quarry over the ridge of sand and then gathered itself together for the fatal rush. In three magnificent bounds it reached the scattering herd and struck down the fine young buck it had marked down for prey.

Just Like Puss.

We tumbled out of the cart and ran to the kill; and while the huntsman was busy with his preparations for tempting the cheetah from its victim, I watched the beast of prey.

The buck's neck was broken, and the cheetah, with teeth fixed in its throat, was breathing hard, so that it undo a loud purring noise through the stream of blood that was pouring down its throat. At the same time, its great claws, grasping the antelope's chest, spread wide and contracted, squeezing the heart, as it were, to force out the slackening jets of blood.

It seemed a horrid sight, but in a flash there came before me a vision of puss at home, lying before a comfortable fire and purring loudly as she squeezed the hearthrug with her claws. Then I understood why the original wild ancestor of all our cats enjoyed the sensation of purring and at the same time opening and shutting his claws.

He was rehearsing the happiest possible experience in a wild cat's life, when it had stalked and killed some large creature and was drinking its blood. Puss on the hearthrug may never have killed anything bigger than a mouse, but the old instinct still works.

We are just as ignorant as the cat about the reasons why we do certain things to show pleasure or goodwill. Why do we smile at a friend and frown at an enemy? Why not frown for friendship and smile in anger? Why do our men merely shake hands to express good feeling, whereas our women and children and foreign men of many nations kiss each other?

For the meaning of all these things, so with the tail-wagging of the dog, the purring of the cat, and our own hair standing on end when we are badly frightened, we must go back to the habits of our ancestors of long ago.

The smile and the frown are the oldest, as well as the most universal, means of expressing the feeling of one human being towards another. They go bark to the time when our remote ancestors were four-handed animals which had not learned to use any other weapons than their hands and teeth.

Watch two angry monkeys quarrelling and see how quickly they exchange vicious snatches at each other's faces: then you understand why our ancestors, like the great apes, had heavy brows overhanging their eyes to protect them, and why we still instinctively increase this protection to the eyes by frowning when we are in the mood for quarrelling.

The kiss was, of course, is more intimate and convincing proof of mutual goodwill: because to put your mouth with lips gently closed within reach of a bite was the greatest token of confidence which one animal could possibly show to another but the handshake is of later origin. It dates from the time when our ancestors had learned to use weapons: and to offer your unarmed right hand was a supreme proof of goodwill, because it put you at his mercy.



This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1928, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.