We all instinctively like, link, and forward things that shore up our own beliefs. And that is exactly how fake news is spread, especially in social media. I know, I’ve done it. Almost. Here’s how I (nearly) spread fake news.
In May 2019, a Facebook friend of mine shared an article titled “According to Research, Being a Cat Lady is Actually Good for You.” I’m a certifiably crazy cat lady, I like the idea that cats are good for us, so I clicked the link to the article. It was published in House Beautiful – not exactly known for its scientific reporting. Hey, I’m willing to suspend disbelief, because I want to believe it. I read the article quickly and was just about to click to share it to my Facebook timeline, for all my cat-loving friends to agree with me. But then I thought, maybe I should check out this “research” a bit further.
First, the article says, “According to Psychological Medicine, there’s absolutely no link to owning cats and psychosis later in life.” This links to Cambridge University’s Journal of Psychological Medicine – hey, that’s scientific. But the article in it is titled, “Curiosity killed the cat: no evidence of an association between cat ownership and psychotic symptoms at ages 13 and 18 years in a UK general population cohort.” In other words, there’s no evidence that cat ownership makes you a psychotic British teen. But that’s not everyone, everywhere. OK, so she (the author) is generalizing some. Perhaps a lot. Let’s move on.
Next she quotes a 2009 study in the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology which concluded that cat owners have a “”a decreased risk for death due to MI and all cardiovascular diseases.” Who exactly did they study, and when? Scroll down to the Methods and Results, and we see it’s based on a 1992 report on a 1976-80 study, that only asked those with allergies if they had pets – just 31% of the cohort. We never get to see exactly the questions asked. Still, with 4,435 male and female black and white American adults aged 30-75, it seems a reasonable sample size. It looks like a scientific conclusion. Chalk up one for the author’s credibility.
But then she asserts that “Kitties can easily reduce your levels of stress—especially for women above 50 years old—and the comforting rhythmic sound of their purring actually has healing powers.” I love a purring machine in my lap as much as the next cat lady but… healing powers? Really? Let’s see.“Healing powers” links to a short article and beautiful diagram on DailyInfoGraphic.com. Looks impressive. This article claims that “When a cat purrs within a frequency range of 20-140 Hertz, nearby humans may be therapeutically benefiting from these vibrations. Purring has been linked to lowering stress, decreasing symptoms of Dyspnoea [difficulty breathing], lessening the chances of having a heart attack, and even strengthening bones.” The infographic quotes an “Old Veterinary Adage” that “If you put a cat and a bunch of broken bones in the same room, the bones will heal.” Even assuming those bones are in live animals, not skeletons, I’m getting doubtful. In 50 years I’ve never heard a vet say anything of the sort.
In small print at the bottom of the infographic are the URLS of seven sources for these claims:
- www.life-enthusiast.com which would like to sell us super-foods. Scientific research? Nope.
- www.bjbangs.net a personal kitty-fan blog by BJ Bangs, who describes herself as an “award-winning journalist, photographer and public relations professional.” No science here either.
- http://purring.org a personal research site by an actual scientist Dr Robert Eklund, PhD in Computational Linguistics. Nothing on the purring.org home page confirms anything in the infographic. Mostly it lists his papers presented at phonetics conferences – too many for me to read all. Dr Eklund studies wild cats, like cheetahs, more than house cats, but let’s try his acoustic comparison of the purring of four domestic cats. Does it prove house cats are good for you in any way? Nope. It proves they purr at 17 to 33 Hertz frequencies.
- http://consciouscat.net sells cat books by author Ingrid King. King says she used to manage a veterinary hospital, and is a “a certified veterinary journalist and a professional member of the Cat Writers Association.” Vet? Scientist? Nope.
- http://uk.lifestyle.yahoo.com/purr-therapy-healing-power-cats-230052768.html No idea what that was, as the link is now dead. But as it’s on a Lifestyle site, I’m guessing it just regurgitated other “lifestyle” articles like House Beautiful’s. Scientific research? Unlikely.
- http://asadl.org/jasa/resource/1/jasman/v110/i5/p2666_s3?bypassSSO=1 The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America! That’s real science – even if it’s not the proper DOI citation, we don’t know the author, and the link is dead. We just browse volume 110 issue 5, page 2666, to find the abstract of “The Felid Purr: A healing method?” by Elizabeth von Muggenthaler. (Published in 2001 – not exactly red hot news in 2019.) Its abstract reports, “Every felid in the study generated strong frequencies between 25 and 150 Hz. Purr frequencies correspond to vibrational/electrical frequencies used in treatment for bone growth/fractures, pain, edema, muscle growth/strain, joint flexibility, dyspnea, and wounds.” Her article was sponsored by Endevco, which sells testing machinery, so they have something to gain from vibrations that heal. But the abstract gives no references or sources, and I can’t get the full text of the article for free or in public library databases.
Rummaging with search terms on Google and Google Scholar, I find a “layman’s version” of it on Animalvoice.com, part of the Fauna Communications Research Institute. Apparently Von Muggenthaler is part of this institute, so this version will do for now. She cautions that this is “a speculative research paper. It is a hypothesis.” But at least she cites a bunch of her sources. She notes Dr Cook found feline purring relieves dyspnoea – in cats (not in humans). She gets excited about healing bones with vibration, especially Dr Rubin’s research and his “fantastic discovery [that] exposure to frequencies between 20-50 Hz (at low dB) creates the robust striations of increased bone density.” Great. But none of her bone-vibrating researchers worked with cats. She then speculates that cats purr at 20-50 Hz frequency range to heal their own bones and muscles. Which could be true. Does this prove that cats’ purring heals humans? Nope.
- https://www.guideposts.org/the-healing-power-of-the-purr And one more personal story, about a their cat comforting his wife after she nearly miscarried. It’s on a website that is “a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring the world to believe that anything is possible with hope, faith, and prayer”. Yeah, no science here either.
Only two out of seven sources are actual research.
If one of my students had handed me this list of references, when I was an academic librarian, I’d grade their assignment “D.”
So what do we conclude about “According to research, being a cat lady is good for you?” What does the research actually say?
Cat owners die from heart disease less often than others.
Cats’ purring may miraculously heal … cats. And comfort humans.
Is that ground-breaking science or red hot news? Nope.