It's not a mystery that caressing a purring cat is a pleasurable experience -- it'll even lower your blood pressure. But what is a mystery, strangely enough, is the mechanics of purring itself.
In short: No one really, truly knows exactly how a cat purrs -- or even all the reasons why.
The most common explanation of the source is that a purr originates in the voice box, with what are called the "vestibular folds," or false vocal cords. The passing of air across these structures is thought to get the engine running.
Cats purr when they're happy, but cats also purr if they're injured, while giving birth -- even when dying. British zoologist Desmond Morris has observed in his masterwork, "Catworld: A Feline Encyclopedia" (Penguin Reference), that purring is "a sign of friendship -- either when (the cat) is contented with a friend or when it is in need of friendship -- as with a cat in trouble." If you think about it, a purr is kind of like a smile: Sometimes you smile from happiness, sometimes from nervousness.
As with a smile, there's no such thing as a purr that isn't welcome. Cats know this themselves. Kittens start purring even before they open their eyes, rumbling while nursing, with what must be a reassuring sound to their mother -- who's likely purring herself.
We even like that purring is something our cats do that the big cats can't. Your cat, in other words, can do something even the biggest, most handsome and imposing King of the Jungle can't: Cats purr, but lions can't.
On the flip side: Lions roar, which cats can't do. Still, it's pretty special that no big cat can get his motor running the way our household kitties can, purring constantly as effortlessly as breathing, both in and out. Tigers can rumble a tiger-sized purr-like sound, but on the exhale only -- and really, would you like a tiger sleeping on your bed?
A couple more cool cat facts to ponder:
Squeezing in. Cats are able to squeeze through spaces that seem narrower than they are because cats don't have a rigid collarbone to block their way through nooks and crannies. Once they can get their head and shoulders through, their sleek bodies present no further obstacle.
That's if those bodies are sleek, that is. The world is full of fat cats, after all, and for them, fitting through tiny holes is not a given. For one thing, they may think they're capable of fitting even if their paunch says otherwise. That's because a cat's whiskers -- super-sensitive specialized hairs -- spread roughly as wide as a cat does. But they don't grow longer as a cat gets wider, which can lead some corpulent cats into sticky situations.
No sweet tooth on a cat. People crave sweets -- cakes, candies, cookies and sodas galore. But cats couldn't care less. That's because the taste buds of a cat are incapable of detecting, appreciating or triggering a craving for foods that we recognize as "sweet."
As "obligate carnivores" -- meaning they need meat protein to survive -- cats don't need to have much to do with sweets. It's unclear whether the ancestors of cats had the ability to detect sweetness and lost it, or whether cats never developed a "sweet tooth," since they didn't need it.
People eat a much more varied diet, and our taste buds reflect that -- we have nearly 10,000 on our tongues. No such variety for cats, who'd be happy to stick with small prey animals and need fewer than 500 taste buds to figure what's good on the menu.
No doubt their limited abilities in this regard factor in the well-known finickiness of cats.
What's not a mystery about cats? How much we love them. They are the most popular pet in the United States, and they show no sign of giving up that No. 1 status.
Perfect rabbit diet
is easy, economical
Q: I just got a rabbit from a friend, and I was wondering what fresh foods are OK to give him. -- J.S., via e-mail
A: A rabbit's diet should consist of a nonstop supply of grass hays (timothy, alfalfa or oat hay, brome or orchard grass), plus daily servings of fresh, dark-green leafy vegetables. Your rabbit also needs at-will access to clean, fresh water. Fruits such as bananas, apples or raisins can be used as treats.
Like many longtime bunny fans, I don't feed commercial rabbit pellets at all. I feed "greens" -- collard, mustard, chard, kale, dandelion, etc. -- along with parsley, broccoli and the leafy tops of root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips or beets. If you have room for a vegetable garden, greens are ridiculously easy to grow. I also give my rabbits the parings from all the vegetables I prepare for myself.
I buy hay at the feed mill (even most urban areas have them). If you have a dry, cool spot to store hay, it's most economical to buy by the bale. If not, buy a "flake" or two at a time, and you'll still save money over the tiny packages sold in pet stores. If you keep it covered and dry, a hay bale will last for months. (And if you check around, you may be able to split a bale with other rabbit owners.)
Final note: "Wild" greens are fine to feed rabbits -- as long as you're sure the area where you're picking them is free of herbicides and pesticides. -- Gina Spadafori
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dog can help child
avoid weight gain
-- With childhood obesity a continued concern, one study suggests that having a dog in the family can help to motivate kids to get moving. Among children 5 to 6 years of age, a family dog reduces the likelihood of obesity by half. Not only are children with dogs more likely to walk, but they're also more likely to spend more time with the pet and less on the couch watching TV or playing video games.
-- The continued popularity of tiny dogs is driving the smuggling of puppies across the border from Mexico. On the California border, a task force of 18 regional law enforcement agencies is working to fight the smuggling of puppies across the borders in ways that are not only illegal, but cruel. Puppies have been found stuffed in car speakers, side door panels and under seats -- and they're often bound to prevent movement or noise. The puppies are also dying from contagious diseases and parasites, as well as poor breeding practices. Those puppies who live long enough are sold out of the trunks of cars in parking lots for cash -- and many die after the sales from disease or poor care.
-- While pets do cost money to care for, their ability to lower stress is helping to get many people through economic hard times. According to dvm360.com, a survey of 400 pet owners reported that three-quarters of them were worried about finances, but 89 percent said their pets help them deal with the stresses of life. Most notably, the pet owners appreciated the steady and supportive presence of the animals in their lives. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.
On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and more. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Supervision, praise key to house-training
Successful house-training requires setting up a potty schedule, limiting a puppy's roaming options to areas you can supervise, showing your pup the area you want him to use, and praising him for going there.
Even with a positive approach, people make mistakes. Here are a few things to remember:
-- Limit your puppy's wanderings. Use pens and baby gates to keep your pup where you can keep an eye on him. That way, if you see him start to make a mistake, you can whisk him outside and praise him for finishing the job where you want him to. When you can't supervise, your puppy should be in a crate.
-- Understand your puppy's physical limitations. Little puppies have limited storage capability and need to be taken out frequently. A general guideline: A puppy can hold it as long as his age in months: A 4-month-old puppy is good for up to four hours, at the outside limit.
-- Remember how puppies work. Puppies need to relieve themselves after they wake up, after they eat or drink, and after playing. Make sure to take your puppy out at these times. Offer food and water at scheduled intervals to help predict when your pup will need a trip outside.
-- Clean up mistakes thoroughly. What you can't see, a puppy can still smell -- and smells invite repeat business. Keep commercial products on hand that use enzyme action to break down the smell. White vinegar also does a great job of neutralizing the odor of urine. Don't use an ammonia-based product, though: Ammonia smells like one of the components in urine to a pet.
-- Be patient and consistent. While some puppies seem to house-train themselves, others are slower to learn. If you don't seem to be making progress, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist who can help. -- Gina Spadafori
Hairball fix? Try
Hairballs are normal for cats, as is watching where you walk to avoid the disgusting "gifts" that always seem to be left on the most expensive rugs in the house. If the problem is severe, your veterinarian may suggest the use of a mild laxative to help the hairballs pass through your cat's system.
You should also try combing your cat more frequently to remove excess hair. And you might increase the fiber in your cat's diet -- adding a little canned pumpkin daily is a great way that many cats enjoy.
Don't let your cat become a laxative junkie, as daily use decreases the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Commercial hairball remedies should not be used more than twice weekly except on the advice of your veterinarian. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.