Have you ever listened to the sound of a flatulent cat?
If you have not, it is probably something – just for curiosity’s sake – you should hear just once before you shuffle off this mortal coil. Quite extraordinary.
To fully appreciate a noisily flatulent cat it is necessary to have a rudimentary understanding of an orchestral reed instrument.
The Ancient Greeks hit upon the idea of using two pieces of reed to set up a vibrating column of air within a tube – the Aulos.. Imagine blowing across a piece of grass to get one of those ungainly squawks, and then attaching the whole business to a tube to regulate the pitch.
Pictures depict professional Aulos players exerting themselves considerably, with huge puffed cheeks. It took a mighty pair of lungs to set one reed vibrating shrilly against another.
Daniel R Raichel talks about reeds vibrating in The Science And Application Of Acoustics . You blow a nice steady column of air towards a pair of pieces of reed, which sit comfortably, slightly apart.
The column of air sets up a sort of oscillating cycle in which the reeds are forced together and then spring apart, and then back again. The reeds fluster the air. It’s all of a dither. And the sound which emerges is not like the genteel blow-across-a-hole sound of the flute or the robust lip-parping of the trumpet: no, it is this insistent, wailing whine.
Back in 1940, Curt Sachs, in his History of Musical Instruments, described the aulos as “penetrating, insisting and exciting”.
Picture,then, a bedroom on the first floor of a humble family home somewhere in England where a mother and father sleep, for it is the early hours of the morning.
And suddenly, from nowhere, the mother wakes up to the sound of an oboe on the bed.
Well, not exactly an oboe, but a high-pitched wail which must, surely, have two small reeds as its source. Some mini oboe, an oboe musette which has had a bad day and is informing us all of its excessive pub crawl.
She is puzzled in two respects: firstly, how has an oboe got onto the bed; and secondly, what in heaven’s name is an oboist doing there?
Her husband has a more incisive mind when half asleep. She fires out a bleary question: “What was that?” and he rejoins, only just troubling to rise out of his sleep cycle, “It was the cat…”
This is true. The cat, unbeknown to the pair, has crept upon the bed during the night. She has thieving tendencies, and has plundered the kitchen for something – no-one has any idea what – which has created an excess of gas in her small luxuriously furry tummy.
Remember the puffed cheeks of the Aulos players? Cat flatulence is like the perfect storm. It needs excessive gas,lots of it, and requires a cat who i) cannot regulate its intake and ii) chooses to eat highly inappropriate food.
A word about the cat sphincter. I had a feeling that someone, somewhere might have done some research: and J. Crier, T.Adams and R.A.Meyer stepped up to the podium with their seminal work: Physiological, Morphological and Histochemical Properties of The Cat External Anal Sphincter.
When we talk about the reed effect, we need to bear in mind twitch contractions: the time it takes to get from relaxed to reed-tense. Adams, Crier and Meyer actually measured this, though God help the cat who was their subject. Those of us who know the feline world well will know that it will never, ever forgive them.
Apparently it takes just 20-29 microseconds for this unfortunate cat’s sphincter to get from relaxed to something called half-maximal twitch force. The cat’s sphincter, my friends, is a formidably fast-twitch muscle.
And so our cat, on a bed in the middle of the night somewhere in England, is experiencing a large volume of gas and is the proud possessor of a fast twitch muscle which moves lightning-fast into action and oscillates much like a double reed instrument. It flusters the surrounding air molecules and the couple are treated to an insistent, wailing solo.
As the wife lies there, still floating in the nether layers of consciousness, she hears another sound: her husband’s utterances. For the gas does not just disappear, and it is diabolically sulphurous. It drifts not in the wife’s direction, but in the husband’s, and immediately sleep is impossible.
An unforgettable moment. Ours, of course.
One which came to mind last night, about 2am, when we were sure there was a cat in the room, yet Kit Kat was safely downstairs.
Closer inspection revealed that the whining noises were coming from the dog’s stomach.
I will not even begin to think about the physics of that one.