Five millennia or so ago, a goddess with the body of a woman and the head of a lion, called Mafdet, was worshipped in Egypt. She was the goddess of both justice and execution, an interesting connection. Her image evolved to the head of a house cat, and finally the entire image was a domestic shorthair cat. Her worship was enthusiastic and extravagant, by all reports. She was called Bast, or sometimes Bastet (Bubastis in Greek), and she had her own sacred city – Per-Bast - in the Nile Delta. According to Herodotus, thousands attended her annual spring celebration there, and more wine was consumed during this festival than any other at the time – a sure sign of some serious partying, then as now.
In time she became more benign. She was a protector, not only of Pharaoh, but also pregnant women, and represented fertility. Like the housecat she was identified with, she took care of her charges with devotion and fierceness. This loyalty was returned. When a family’s cat died, they shaved their eyebrows and would take the cat to be mummified and buried. Archaeologists have found a huge cat cemetery in the ruins of Per-Bast (now Tell-Basta), and other areas as well. In fact, so many cats were mummified that nineteenth century ships departing Egypt used them as ballast. Killing a cat, even accidentally, brought about the death penalty in ancient Egypt.
Today, cats still enjoy a special place in the hearts and homes of many people. What this perennial fascination with cat is about is anybody’s guess. But one intriguing thing about them is that they purr.
No one knows why they purr, and several theories exist. With a frequency of somewhere between 75 and 150 hertz, a cat's purr seems to vacillate between the pharynx and diaphragm. It continues while the cat breathes in and out. We like to think the purr is about us, and our cats' pleasure at being with us, being stroked and paid attention to. But cats purr at other times, such as when they are tending their kittens, when they are stressed (both physically and psychologically), and even when they are dying.
Some scientists suggest that the vibrations of purring are used to communicate and perhaps for self-healing. It is thought that the vibrations can relieve pain, provide faster healing to injuries, and most importantly increase bone density. One of the comparisons that scientists make is that dogs, their counterparts, are unable to heal as fast, and they suffer from more muscle and bone diseases than cats. Vets and scientists have done studies on the "high-rise syndrome", using documented cases of cats falling from high-rise apartments. Out of 132 cases of cats falling an average of 5.5 stories, 90% of these cats survived. The record is surviving from a fall of 45 stories, but most cats who fall even 7 stories or more survive. There is an old adage from veterinary schools: "If you put a cat and a bunch of broken bones in the same room, the bones will heal."
This bone density issue causes much interest as it holds potential implications for humans and other species. Women, who have more osteoporosis and bone density issues than men, are encouraged to walk and exercise to improve their bones. Cats, who have great bone density, sleep more hours than they are awake, and exercise doesn’t seem to be on their agenda.
Working on the theory that purring takes the place of physical exercise, researchers have tried putting chickens on a vibrating plate twenty minutes a day at between 20-50 hertz, and the chickens’ bones were strengthened. When rabbits were subjected to a similar experiment, they not only got stronger but their fractures healed faster. Continuing studies show that mechanical vibration aids the healing of tendons and muscles as well as bringing pain relief. It has been used in sports medicine, and some gyms use it to increase muscle mass. People with COPD have been helped by this therapy as well. Purring also seems to alleviate dyspnoea, or breathing difficulties, in cats and potentially in people.
Perhaps the ancient Egyptians were privy to this information, another one of their medical mysteries but this one unknown. As someone who has been owned by many a cat, and gladly so, I can understand the fascination with these creatures. And a vibrating plate sounds so much better than a stair stepper.