World's Loudest Cat Purrs Into Record Books

Smokey the cat’s “thunderous purr” has been compared to a lawn mower and even to a Boeing 747 coming in to land from a mile away. Now, the 12-year-old female cat from Northampton, U.K., has even more reason to vocalize: Guinness World Records recently named her the world’s loudest purring cat.

“Smokey and I are very excited at being awarded the Guinness World Records title,” says Ruth Adams, Smokey’s owner, who lives at Spring Hill farm in the U.K. Some people, however, said it wasn’t fair, and that the cat is trilling and not purring. But can a cat trill and purr at the same time? And what is a trill anyway?

Trilling, Purring, Crying
According to the Malta Feline Guardians Club, a trill consists of a soft repeated “R” noise. It is similar to the trill used in certain human languages, such as Spanish. For example, say “rapido” aloud with a trilled “R” that necessitates tongue vibration.

When cats purr, on the other hand, they draw air past the voice box. Muscles function like a valve, so when air passes through and the valve opens and closes rapidly, the cat emits a purr sound. Cats can vocalize in many other ways -- chirping, yowling, snarling, growling, howling, chuffing and of course, meowing -- but purring seems to fascinate us the most. Scientists still don’t fully understand its form and function.

Karen McComb, a reader in behavioral ecology at the University of Sussex, started to pay attention to her own cat’s purring and detected that it often included “an unusual high frequency element, reminiscent of a cry or meow, embedded within the naturally low-pitched purr. The inclusion of this high-frequency element within the purr could serve as a subtle means of exploitation, tapping into an inherent sensitivity that humans and other mammals have to cues relevant in the context of nurturing offspring.”

This double-loud sound, which McComb calls a “solicitation purr,” may be what recently skyrocketed Smokey to Guinness World Record fame.

Challenges Recording Cats
Adams always knew that Smokey was louder than most cats, but the challenge was in proving it. McComb herself faced this challenge, and therefore had to recruit her own cat and that of a colleague. She also trained other cat owners to use the equipment so they could record their own pets. Adams instead approached nearby Northampton College to provide specialized sound equipment.

Surrounded by local VIP witnesses, including a British Airways captain, Smokey miraculously purred away, reaching 73 decibels according to Northampton’s experts. Guinness, however, documented the sound as reaching 67.7 decibels, perhaps due to certain measurement restrictions. Says Ray Meadham, curriculum manager in music at the college: “You don’t get asked to help out with a world record attempt every day, so of course we jumped at the chance.” He and his colleagues used a Rode microphone, Logic music software and a Category 1 sound level meter (used in recording studios) to analyze the cat’s purring. “Luckily, Smokey was in top form and rose to the challenge.”

Putting Cat Sounds Into Perspective
Check out how Smokey’s trilly purring compares to other measured sounds:

  • Total silence: 0 decibels
  • Smokey: 67.7 to 73 decibels
  • Lawn mower: 90 decibels
  • Car horn: 110 decibels
  • Rock concert: 120 decibels (plus or minus)
  • Blue whales and fin whales:188 decibels

Why Are Some Cats so Loud?
If your cat suddenly goes from quiet to constant, loud meowing, a veterinary visit may be in order. Certain health disorders, such as hyperthyroidism, can cause excessive meowing.

For a healthy cat, loud “solicitation purring is probably more acceptable to humans than overt meowing,” says McComb. Purring seems to have a natural, soothing effect; so in essence, cats sweet talk us in order to capture our attention. “Not all cats use this solicitation purring,” says McComb. “It seems to most often develop in cats that have a one-on-one with their owners rather than in large households where there is a lot going on and such purring might get overlooked. Meowing seems to be more common in these situations.”

Do Cats Really Prefer Women?

New research recently revealed that women, in general, tend to bond more with cats than men do. Many men, however, enjoy equally rewarding relationships with cats. What might explain our puzzling human-cat dynamics? Science is providing some answers.

Cats Make the Right Sounds
Karen McComb, a reader in behavioral ecology at the University of Sussex, is both a researcher and a cat owner, so her daily interactions with her own pet often become fodder for studies. McComb began to notice that her male cat frequently sounds like a human infant. “Cats have about the right size of vocal folds to produce a cry that is similar to a baby’s,” she explains. “The meow, which can sound like a crying child, will be particularly effective with humans.” Both men and women seem to respond to this sound, with the mothering instinct particularly kicking in for women.

Cats can also engage in what McComb calls “solicitation purring.” This sound combines purring with an embedded high-pitched cry, which creates a sound that’s nearly irresistible. “In the case of my cat, if he sees you stirring from sleep at all in the early morning, he will immediately switch into giving this solicitation purring and position himself next to your head so you get the full impact.”

Cats Have the Right Touch
Cats are extremely tactile animals. Even among themselves, they are forever showing affiliation by affectionately pushing against each other, cleaning faces and even snoozing together in one big pile. This need and compulsion to touch extends to their human social partners too.

Manuela Wedl of the University of Vienna’s Konrad Lorenz Research Station and Department of Behavioral Biology and her team recently analyzed the social dynamics between 40 cats and their owners. In their study, published in the journal Behavioural Processes, they documented these tactile interactions and more:

  • Cat rubs face against owner
  • Cat rubs body against owner
  • Cat rubs tail against, or curls tail around, owner
  • Cat bumps owner with forehead
  • Cat reaches out with forepaw and touches owner
  • Cat kneads owner

Women and Cats
Men and women frequently differ in their influence over the cat. “It is known that, when humans and cats first meet, women tend to speak/vocalize to the cat more than men, and cats tend to approach women more often than men,” says Wedl.

Once again, sound isn’t the only bonding factor. “In studies of cat-owning families, it has been found that women tend to interact with their cats more than men do,” says Wedl. “In response, the cats approach female owners more frequently and initiate contact more frequently, such as jumping up, than they do with male owners.” She additionally points out that other researchers believe “female owners have more intense relationships with their cats than do male owners.”

Men and Cats
Mysteries remain as to why cats and women so often seem to bond well. It could have to do with the cat-baby similarities. It may also just be that the ways women tend to express affiliation match better with those of cats. Hormones, genetics and other forms of hardwiring can come into play. Conversely, it’s said that dogs are man’s best friend.

Just as many women love their dogs, however, many men adore cats. Wedl and her colleagues studied numerous such relationships, and noted that petting, playing and other more active forms of engagement were not affected by whether or not the owner was male or female. Sometimes research data is even skewed toward women because, in some households, women tend to be at home more and can therefore spend more time with pets.

The bottom line is that if you can share affection -- be it in the form of food, a place in your home or time for play -- a cat would likely welcome your generosity and return the kindness in its own way.

Cat Survivors of Japan’s Earthquakes and Tsunami

On March 11, when an 8.9-magnitude undersea earthquake triggered a massive tsunami that struck Japan’s eastern coastline, the world watched one astounding video after another, documenting the enormity of the disaster.

The Japanese government urged all evacuees to leave their pets at home. The area already had a significant stray population, so tens of thousands of cats were left behind in the disaster zone. Animal welfare organizations and volunteers, however, continue to work tirelessly to save these cats.

Rescue Efforts Save Pet Lives

Animal Rescue Kansai is one of several organizations that have funneled their resources and expertise to aiding animals affected by the tsunami. “We’ve been taking in animals, both those rescued on the road or those belonging to evacuees,” says Elizabeth Oliver, founder of Animal Rescue Kansai. “After coming in, they are processed by our on-site vet: deworming, vaccination, microchipping and neutering. Some animals are boarded; some are given up for adoption.”

Other local organizations doing similar work include the Japan Animal Welfare Society, the Japan Veterinary Medical Association, the SPCA and Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS). JEARS was formed by a small group of animal welfare activists -- including David Wybenga, founder of the Japan Cat Network -- as a direct reaction to the tsunami.

“We’ve put out our info, gone to human shelters and put out flyers asking if anyone has left animals behind,” he says. “People call, and we go check on the cats in their house or pick them up.” Wybenga says his group is also supporting people who made the effort to save their pets. “There are people who stayed with their pets, and maybe also gathered up their neighbor’s pets, but don’t have any resources,” he says. “So we’re also looking for people who need our help caring for and feeding their pets.”

Preparing Your Cat for a Disaster

While it’s inherently difficult to prepare for an unpredictable act of nature, there are some steps you can take:

  • Have your cat microchipped or at least make sure its collar contains your name, address and phone number. “Most of the animals we’re finding have not been microchipped, so we have to post pictures and descriptions and hope that someone will see that and claim the pet,” says Wybenga. “If there’s a microchip, you get the name and address of the owner by scanning it.”
  • Make a “go bag.” This should be something portable and filled with nonperishable food, water bottles, a water/food bowl, a can opener and a flashlight (ideally a human-powered one that doesn’t require batteries).
  • Take your cat with you. It’s actually common for local government agencies to tell people to leave pets behind. “Take your pet with you, even if they say you can come back for it later,” says Oliver. “If it’s not safe for you to be there, then it is not safe for your pet either.”
  • Have an exit strategy. This is especially important if your exit may mean leaving the country. Know what the requirements and procedures are for animal travel for the departure airport, the airline and the country you’ll be traveling to.

How You Can Help the Japanese Effort
The most obvious way to help is by donating money, which will still be needed months from now. You can also donate goods, such as cat food or bedding, and have them sent directly to the organization. Finally, you can help urge Japanese legislators to make animal rescue an official priority for future disasters.

“The hurricane Katrina disaster was the largest cat-dog rescue process in the world, and as a result of that, the U.S. -- specifically FEMA -- has required that projects must have a contingency for pets,” he says. “We’re hoping people will write the Japanese embassy or the American embassy in Japan, and tell them to please do something more for the animals that are in distress.”

Technology Made for Cats

Wonder what your cat is doing while you’re at work all day? Sony Computer Science Laboratories has partnered with researchers at The University of Tokyo to develop Cat@Log, a gadget that combines GPS, a digital camera, Wi-Fi and an acceleration sensor to enable Twitter updates on what your cat is doing. The GPS tracks location, and the acceleration sensor interprets what the cat is doing -- such as walking, sleeping or eating. A camera then snaps pics from a collar-eye view. Every now and then, all this data is sent wirelessly to a home computer that posts a Twitter status update (e.g., “this tastes good” while your cat is eating), complete with tweet pics.

Technology for You and Your Cat
For now, Cat@Log represents the latest cat-gadget trend. The high-tech trend has increasingly crept into the pet product industry, according to Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association.

“It’s reflective of what goes on on the human side, especially as some of the younger generation start turning to pets,” he says. “More and more, you see them look for the same kind of techy things for their cats as they want for themselves.”

The APPA’s 2010 Pet Products Trend Report cites high-tech items as one of the areas where products for animals now extend beyond traditional necessities. Vetere gives some specific examples:

Self-cleaning Litter Boxes

These models of cat sanitation sense when your kitty has done its business and activate rakes that clear waste into covered waste compartments. The tray and compartment are disposable, making them scoop-free and mostly hands-off.

Estimated price: $100

Water Fountains
Automated water fountains are a fresh replacement to the traditional water bowl, especially for houses with multiple cats. Constantly flowing water inhibits bacterial growth better than stagnant water can. Many models have variable flow rates.

Estimated price: $30

Automatic Food Dispensers
These dispenser/bowl combos are useful in two ways: They keep your cat from running out of food, but they can also prevent kitty from eating too much. Lower-priced models are good for a few meals and use gravity to dispense food, while high-end models are electronic, programmable and can feed your cat for a week or more.

Estimated price: $10 to $180

“All three [of the above products] are perfect for people with a mobile lifestyle,” says Vetere. “People are trying to find things that keep their pets happy as they’re away more.”

Laser Toys
Anyone who’s used their laser pointer as a cat toy rather than for PowerPoint presentations knows cats find them irresistible. It’s no surprise that a few products take this idea to the next level. Such a toy can be used manually or left in auto, hands-free mode (with rotating laser patterns) so your cat can play with it alone on the floor.

Estimated price: $15

Motorized/Robotic Cat Toys

Motorized toys free up your hands to record funny footage of your cat. Toys can include mice scurrying under a cover, unpredictable robotic arms that chirp like a bird while waving feathers, and “talking,” motion-activated treat dispensers.

Estimated price: $20 to $30

GPS Tracking Devices
GPS technology can be precise to within a few feet, which takes a lot of the guesswork out of finding a lost cat.

Estimated price: $200 to $300

For those who are simply curious about where their cat regularly goes, a less expensive option is a GPS “logger,” which tracks locations but doesn’t transmit the data in real time. When you and your cat reunite, connect the logger to your computer, and you’ll get a neat visual illustration of his or her route laid over a satellite view. 

Estimated price: $100 to $150

As for the Cat@Log, eager early adopters will have to wait. It is still just a prototype being showcased at technology conferences. The product and pricing are being perfected before the Cat@Log is available to consumers.

Famous Fathers and Their Cats

Dating back to ancient times, cats were the friends of goddesses, not gods. So it might surprise you to learn about the litany of famous fathers who’ve caved in to cats’ charms.

One of the most macho devoted cat lover dads was writer Ernest Hemingway, whose home and museum in Key West still harbor scores of polydactyl cats, which have extra toes. “A cat has absolute emotional honesty,” Hemingway once said. “Human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”

Abe Lincoln owned the White House’s first cat, Tabby, who was sometimes fed at state dinners -- to the horror of Mrs. Lincoln but to the delight of their children. “No matter how much the cats fight,” President Lincoln observed, “there always seem to be plenty of kittens.”

When dads today come out as cat lovers, they’re in good company. An online survey by PetPlace.com found that more than 83 percent of respondents answered the question “Do real men own cats?” with a resounding “meow.” “Cats are cool,” one person wrote. “Cool guys like cats.”

How Cats Benefit Fathers
Cat owners report that cats add companionship, relaxation and entertainment to their lives. These are some of the reasons that 38.2 million households in the U.S. have cats -- the second highest figure recorded since the American Pet Products Association (APPA) started undertaking a national survey in 1988. According to APPA’s 2009/2010 National Pet Owners Survey, 65 percent of respondents said they feel like their cat is part of the family.

Typically, the interactions people have with cats are very nurturing. “We feed them, pet them, cuddle with them, and that’s what the mother cat would do,” says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, an animal behavior professor at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “In the wild, fathers are absent. Mom does all the raising on her own.”

In the home, however, dads can take a more involved role. Exercising the family cat with mobile toys, tubes or anything on a stick can help the cat maintain a healthy weight and help dad de-stress at the same time. Clicker training is another activity that dads can take on with the cat and the kids because cats can learn to respond to food rewards and sit, jump and do other tricks. “It can teach dad new respect for his cat friend and demonstrate his nurturing side to the family,” says Dodman.

Cats Help Men in Human Relationships
Men have much to learn about relating to others -- especially children -- from the way they interact with the family pet, says Chris Hamer, author of Parenting with Pets: The Magic of Raising Children with Animals. Here are four lessons dads can learn:

1. Be better communicators. Men sometimes have difficulty with communication, particularly with children. “You can’t be macho around an animal. They don’t relate to that. They need fairness and consistency,” says Hamer. “So do children.”

2. Don’t react in the moment. “Working with an animal, especially if you’re doing training, you have to be thinking ahead of time about what you are trying to get out of the situation,” says Hamer. The same techniques can be applied to parenting, she says. “Be proactive, not reactive.”

3. Soften up. Many men tend to react to a complex situation by becoming more dominant or forceful, when sometimes the opposite approach is actually more effective. “I try to get them to soften their voice and give a lot of praise,” says Hamer. This can be a teaching tool for dads when interacting with children.

4. Devote time to the relationship. Involving kids in taking care of the cat is a great way to teach responsibility, build confidence and experience a great family dynamic. But it takes time. “Dads can be cat parents too,” Dodman points out. “It will be mutually beneficial and a good example for the kids.”