Purring Co-regulation

Visiting cat curiosity…

As a young child I was curious about cats. I fancied myself a cat trainer – also, I was “trained” by them. Many cats visited. None were allowed in our house as my brother and I were allergic to cats. I fed itinerant cats table scraps outside. The vagabonds seemed happy with leftover dining offerings as a welcome change from getting mouse fur stuck in their teeth.

Cats are very independent creatures. Some consider that cats are only semi-domesticated which fits my experience. Egyptians reportedly were the first people to domesticate cats around 1500 BC. Cleopatra supposedly had a favorite pet cat she named Tivali (meaning gift of God). Cats were revered in ancient Egypt as they were protectors of the home, often attacking snakes who found themselves in the wrong place. An Egyptian goddess, Bastet or Bast, was characterized as a lioness and later as a woman with a cat’s head. Bast represented justice, fertility and power.

I learned a lot from taming feral cats. Each one had a different personality. I learned co-regulation, although that was too big of a word for a 6-year-old child. Midnight was my favorite cat – perhaps because she submitted to our co-regulating bonding for longer periods of time than other skittish cats. Midnight and I were curious about each other. She followed me, but I also followed her.

 Midnight was an excellent huntress. Her mousing efforts sometimes were dropped off at the back door for my inspection. I was clueless about mousing behavior, but Midnight enjoyed my after-the-fact co-regulating praise. I enjoyed her steady purring when we cuddled. Purrs are a cat-regulating sign of safety and comfort. Sometimes a cat purrs when alone, just rolling around as if self-soothing. Kittens are born deaf and blind, but they soon begin purring vibrations to bond with their moms.  

People are not as independent as we may imagine. We also are dependent as newborns. As we grow up our everyday responses are colored through our connections with other mammals. According to psychologist Stephen Porges, mammals are defined by a need to co-regulate with another, however unresolved trauma interferes with our co-regulating. A person who appears to self-regulate efficiently is one who has a nervous system filled with training times of effectively co-regulating with others. Porges points out that there are folks who co-regulate more effectively with their pets than their spouses…perhaps a topic for another day.

Cats know about co-regulating, but they also know how to pause after a busy day – they roll around on their backs, paws to the sky, while purring with contentment in their eyes. While most of us do not worship cats, we might learn some lessons from them.  

Pearls of Peace (PoP) Quiz:

28. Can you think of times when you experienced co-regulation with a pet?

29. Who is in your life today that you co-regulate with on a regular basis?

By Janis Johnston

Janis Clark Johnston, Ed.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She has worked with children, families, and groups (ages 3-83) with presenting issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and relationship concerns. She initially worked as a school psychologist in public schools and was awarded School Psychology Practitioner of the Year for Region 1 in Illinois for her innovative work. She was a supervising psychologist at a mental health center, an employee-assistance therapist and a trainer for agencies prior to having a family therapy private practice. Recipient of the 2011 Founder’s Award for her dedication to the parenting education of Parenthesis Family Center (now called New Moms), and the 2002 Community Spirit Award from Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter and education center, Johnston is an active participant in numerous volunteer activities supporting children and families in her community. A frequent presenter at national psychology and educational conferences, Johnston has published journal articles, book chapters, and two books -- It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development (2013, hardback; 2019, paperback) and Midlife Maze: A Map to Recovery and Rediscovery after Loss (2017, hardback; 2019, paperback). In addition to augmenting and supporting personal growth in families, Johnston is a Master Gardener and loves nurturing growth in the plants in her yard.

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