By Leah Wells
photo by Samuel Clemens Long
“Every feline, no matter how small, is a masterpiece,” proclaimed Leonardo DaVinci—who was one to know a masterpiece. Devoted cat owners can readily agree with him. But can we say what exactly draws us so irresistibly to cats? Do we receive a ‘contact high’ from our close interactions with them? We turn to nature—a walk in the woods or by the sea, a hit of good weed—to relax us and open our senses. Do cats produce their own effect parallel to that of water’s negative ions or cannabis’s THC? If so, how?
Humanity’s connection to cats spans the ages, as feline appearances testify from Egyptian paintings to YouTube. Domesticated long after our “best friend” the dog, cats made themselves useful to agrarian villages as keepers of the grain and controllers of the rodent population. The Halloween witch, depcited stirring her cauldron, is thought to have had her origin in the female beer brewers of the Middle Ages. The witches’ ubiquitous companion, the black cat with its arching back, was the protector of the brewer’s hops and grains. Though a resident “mouser” has long been essential for any farm, bakery, or brewery, the “house cat” became a popular indoor pet in the US only after the invention of kitty litter in 1947. Seventy years later, house pets are a booming industry, with pet toy sales exceeding a billion dollars for the first time in 2017.
Of all mammals, cats have the biggest eyes in proportion to their faces. These enthralling green or golden eyes, with pupils that wax like the moon from a crescent to an orb and back with the changing light of the day, were used to tell time before cuckoo clocks and smart phones. Cats have contributed to our spoken language in ways too numerous to mention here—especially if the “cat’s got your tongue.” Their acrobatics have made them a funny page favorite (Garfield) and earned them the lead in popular cartoons (Tom and Jerry). To this day, their languid grace inspires poetry and even long-running Broadway musicals. Just ask T.S. Eliot.
For all the sorcery and varied roles attributed to the cat throughout human cultures—sun god, literary muse, fertility talisman, pocketwatch—is it possible that, in addition, there is a certain chemically-induced kick that accounts for their timeless appeal? Recent studies tell us: absolutely yes! Petting cats releases endorphins, hormones that attach themselves to receptors in our brain in order to relieve pain. We also experience a rush of other “feel good” chemicals, including dopamine, prolactin, norepinehrine, and oxytocin—the famous “cuddle chemical” or “love hormone.” As with a mother and baby or two romantic lovers, the release of oxytocin can occur just by looking into the eyes of a beloved pet.
While petting and stroking cats has proven therapeutic, their purring also provides surprising and amazing benefits—to them, and to us. Purring, the soft, rumbling vibration produced by cats under certain circumstances, is one way they communicate. For example, a kitten’s purring is believed to help her nursing mother locate her and be assured of her well-being. Cats purr for a range of reasons: to show us that they’re content, hungry, or distressed (which is called “stress purring”). And recent studies into bioacustics (the science of animal sounds) reveal that a cat’s purring can actually help to heal our broken bones, ligaments, and tendons. Veterinarians have long observed that cats rarely suffer from bone or joint-related diseases. We’re only beginning to learn about how the frequency of their purring (the average house cat comes in around 25-50 Hertz) actually aids in restoring bone fractures and reducing inflammation. Talk about good vibes!
Yes, let’s talk about them: Cats bring us so many chemically-induced pleasures—but it doesn’t stop there. Cats permit us to murmur sweet nothings and be silly in the middle of a busy day. Even when we have our big boy power suits and big girl hats on, they allow us to “let our hair down” to “let go” and be informal. We may be between love relationships, but a friendly cat entitles us to coo and cuddle away our loneliness, to run our hands softly through their fur and stroke them meditatively; to laugh, to buy toys for someone and play games with feathers and rattle mice.
In my building, our own gregarious silver tabby, Gaucho, warmed up the entire floor by introducing neighbors. Chatting over cats even produced a job for me. Out on the block, cats are an integral part of the neighborhood. Like farms of old, many shops and newsstands have their own cat. Other working cats can be found in hospitals, nursing homes, and even prisons.
We have domesticated, tended and cared for animals for centuries, and now human society looks increasingly to the animal world for salvation. With therapy animals of every stripe achieving mainstream acceptance, even on seats of commercial air flights, there is growing respect for the power of simply holding a cat to mend a broken heart or apparently, even a broken bone. And yes, to get us high!
But can what makes us high get cats high? Can we enhance our mystical bond with them by sharing second-hand smoke? Not a good idea, as it happens: THC is not appropriate for kitty or other animals. When we light up, we expect to get high. Animals experiencing these “stoner” effects don’t know what’s going on, and can become disoriented and even dangerously stressed out. Yet a product like CBD oil (with THC removed) can be used to alleviate afflictions like arthritis and nausea in animals, as in humans. Still, the best high that human and animals can share is simply love.
Recently, a humorless FDA prohibited “love” from being listed as an ingredient on the side of a bag of artisian granola. Imagine if the etheric elixir of oxytocin and endorphins that only partially explains the mood-elevating, community-building buzz of loving a cat could be bottled! The FDA would never go for it—but you could be sure that some clever marketer would be calling it Purrfume.