Sighs matter

“I got a cat,” I said as five faces of dog-owners assembled in the local dog park stared back at me, blankly. Crickets chirped. A dog sighed.

“Why?” asked one of them after a protracted pause.

Because my friend’s brother was dying and she was allergic and was desperately trying to find a home for a beautiful 12-year-old tabby. I didn’t know it at the time but he turned out to be an obese, unpleasant, ill-mannered, and judgemental addition to my brood.

“He has no eyebrows,” observed my husband. “He never changes his facial expression like the dogs do. He just… stares.”

While he has somewhat settled in after living his entire life in a small apartment, never having been exposed to dogs, we’re all getting used to each other though my Doberman still refuses to make eye-contact with him following a ‘misunderstanding’ upon introduction.

Where the dogs wear their hearts on their sleeves, you never quite know what the cat is experiencing emotionally – it’s all masked behind the unblinking glare of holier-than-thou green.

But I’ve come to realize one of the biggest differences in their behaviour is that the cat doesn’t sigh. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen, or heard, a cat sigh. Which got me thinking – even my chunky 20-lb Jack Russell doesn’t sigh.

The dramatic Doberman, however, makes up for the other two. He sighs when he’s happy, tired, disappointed, or disgusted. You can distinguish between the deep exhalation meanings if you pair them up with whatever his eyes are doing – half closed, staring straight ahead, or rolling with the whites showing.

This observation had me questioning anyone I knew with a small dog. “Does your dog sigh?” And it turns out that a lot of them don’t though one said his terrier walks purposely very slowly up the stairs when he’s disappointed. Another friend’s small dog doesn’t sigh, per se, but makes various grunting noises to express her displeasure.

Thanks to the grace of the internet, I discovered this week that sighing is not just a reflex borne of boredom or contentment; it’s a necessary – even lifesaving – action the body does whenever the lungs need a bit of extra oxygen. Without sighing, the tiny balloon-like sacs in the lungs known as alveoli can deflate. Sighing apparently helps to ‘pop’ them open by bringing in twice the volume of breath.

The first unfortunate patients in iron lungs in the late 1920s began dying of lung failure because they couldn’t get these extra deep breaths which we take, probably without noticing, every five minutes or so. Respirators have since been designed to ‘sigh’ for the patient.

Sighing has been observed in monkeys and horses as well and though some people say their cats sigh, I have never seen it myself. At last count, I’ve owned over a dozen cats in my life and cannot recall a single sigh out of any of them. What is even keeping these creatures alive?

At this writing, the new cat is splayed out like a blob of striped pancake batter on my son’s bed, napping in the afternoon sunshine and while there are no audible emissions, I can tell he’s content.

He’s still a jerk, but he’s our jerk.