DEAR DR. FOX: Could purring in adult domesticated cats be a neurotic behavior just like barking in adult dogs?
Do adult felines in the wild purr at all outside of the birth and raising of a litter, or do they purr as frequently and intensively as domesticated and pampered cats?
I had a very dependent cat who would drool and purr constantly while I was in the room. I don't think this is normal behavior.
This would have incredible implications, as purring is currently interpreted as true happiness and well-being. It is commonly used to condone the keeping of cats as pets. -- C.D., Montreal, Quebec
DEAR C.D.: I would say about cats' purring that yes, it could become a neurotic obsessive-compulsive disorder, just like other behaviors.
The motivation behind purring is complex -- cats purr when contented, when approaching each other, when curled up together and when engaging in reciprocal grooming. They will also purr when stressed. Some cats in families, even though friendly, never purr, while others never give any other kinds of vocal sounds. It may be a behavior like human chanting or yoga pranic breathing, serving primarily to relax and to signal a relaxed state to others and to solicit attention, such as being groomed, massaged or fed.
It has been theorized that purring, which is at the same Hertz audio-frequency that facilitates bone healing, may have some bone-body restorative function for cats who, as a species, tend to lie low, sleep much of the day and not get the kind of physical activity seen in other species.
Some cats drool a lot as they purr and often knead with their front paws, all associated with nursing behavior in kittens. Such behavior, in my opinion, is a possible indication of some degree of neoteny, of remaining kittenish through adulthood, in part as a consequence of early human bonding and the human taking on the role of parent figure as well as companion in the cats' psyches. But I would never generalize and infer that since some overdependent cats are borderline obsessive purrers, that means purring is an unreliable indicator of feline happiness. It is but one potential indicator of well-being, and in some situations could be a reaction to stress.
I have no in-field knowledge of wild cat purring behavior, but have heard orphaned wild cat kittens purring while nursing. This may help induce mother cats to let down their milk. The loudest purring I have ever heard was by two baby brown bears nursing from their mother at the St. Louis Zoo!
DEAR DR. FOX: I volunteer to walk dogs at our animal shelter and also foster dogs for adoption. Some people say that we "animal lovers are suffering from misguided love and should care more for people, especially children and the handicapped."
What is your opinion? Perhaps this is why municipalities generally give little funding for local shelters. It also makes me sick when I see some animal trainer of killer whales or elephants on TV insisting that they love the animals they work with. What kind of love is that? -- G.B., St. Louis
DEAR G.B.: You raise an important question about our relationships with animals and the meaning of love.
In my opinion, our love ability can be measured by our capacity to suffer for and with others and our commitment to alleviating and preventing their suffering. Otherwise, love is just another four letter-word and worse -- a word that masks selfishness, a kind of self-delusion that helps one feel good about controlling and exploiting others.
Without respect, empathy and compassionate action, the proclamation of love is just another lie or self-delusion. Where is the respect, empathy and compassion for performing captive wild animals such as tigers, elephants, orcas and dolphins when they are deprived of any semblance of a biologically and psychologically appropriate natural environment? They suffer the consequences, like the millions of monkeys and apes in most laboratory research facilities and exotic species kept as pets. All such forms of animal exploitation would be anathema to any truly civilized society.
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