Why Do Cats Purr?

This is a bit embarrassing to admit, but I look forward to coming home to my cats everyday after work. Why? Because I know they’ll run up to me, tail held high in the air, purring away even before I start petting them.

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Are they doing this because they want to be fed? Probably. Do their purrs still make me feel like they love me for more reasons than filling their bowls with food? Yep!

After being a cat owner, I’d say purrs are easily one of my favorite sounds.

What is purring, you ask? If you have a cat, it’s that vibrating-type sound they make. Also, it’s more than just a sound, it radiates through the cat’s entire body. You’re able to both feel it and hear it.

Some people Google, “why does my kitten sound like a motor?” attempting to get to the bottom of it (yes, I seriously came across this suggested search doing research). Instead of having that in your search history, here’s exactly why and how cats purr.

Quick Answer…

In short, cats purr for a variety of reasons, but it’s mainly used as a communication tool for both humans and other cats. Many people see purring as a sign of happiness, which is true. But cats also purr if they’re scared or in pain to calm or heal themselves. A purring cat is likely either asking for comfort or trying to convey they aren’t a threat to other animals.

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How Do Cats Purr?

It’s difficult to explain exactly how cats purr, but scientists have figured out it comes from the laryngeal muscles in a cat’s throat. These muscles open and close the vocal cords, which results in a purr. This muscular movement stems from neural oscillators in a cat’s brain.

When stimulated by pleasure the cat’s brain releases endorphins, which stimulates these neural oscillators, also referred to as the “purr center.”

What Makes a Cat Purr?

Kittens learn to purr at just a few days old with the help of their mother. The mother cat will purr so her kittens can find her before their eyes and ears open — this leads to them purring back to let mom know they’re okay. At this young age, purring serves as a method of familial bonding and keeps young cats safe.

Purring is also a means of survival. In the wild, predators could easily detect loud meows or cries from the young kittens or mother cat. Instead of being vocal, they use purring to communicate and keep themselves hidden from any unwanted visitors. The predators aren’t able to detect vibrations from purrs.

As a cat grows up, its reasons for purring change. A cat can purr when it’s happy, nervous or in pain.

Happiness

The most well-known reason cats purr is because they’re perfectly content. One of the best parts of being a cat owner is having your kitty curled up, purring in your lap. It’s relaxing for both the cat and person.

It’s actually been scientifically proven cats reduce stress and even risk for some disease in humans. A study conducted by the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology found cat owners had a decreased risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases.

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Although happiness is the most common reason cats purr, it could also mean the complete opposite: pain or fear.     

Anxious or in Pain

Similar to how an anxious person might laugh or distract themselves in a stressful situation, cats purr to calm themselves or others. Although no official studies have been done, some veterinarians have observed cats lying next to each other and one purring if the other is injured.

Cats feeling anxious will purr to show they mean no harm, both towards humans and other animals. In multi-cat households, the most confident cat is likely the one that purrs the least. Since purring can be a way to communicate you mean no harm, submissive cats will often purr when in the presence of the “alpha cat.”

If you’ve ever heard your cat purring at the vet, they’re not purring from happiness — that’s its way of trying to calm down.   

Cats purr while in distress or pain, such as when they’re sick, dying or giving birth. Researchers believe this happens for two reasons: one, purring releases pain-relieving endorphins and two, the cat may also be asking for comfort.

Healing Properties

Cats purr at a frequency range between 25 and 150 Hertz, which is proven to increase bone density and promote healing within muscle and tissue. It’s similar to how ultrasound therapy is used to treat tissues, muscles and join in humans.

Since cats spend most of the day sleeping, purring serves as a low-energy way for them to stimulate their bones and muscles without actually getting exercise.

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Maybe a cat’s self-healing purr is the secret to the whole “cats have nine lives” philosophy?

Do All Cats Purr?

Purring is unique to domesticated cats, although some big cats have the ability: Bobcats, cheetahs and wild cats purr. Although all of these cats purr, domesticated cats are the only ones that purr during inhale and exhale.

Cats either have the ability to roar or purr — they aren’t able to do both. Big cats like lions and tigers roar, but can’t purr. Their vocal chords just aren’t built the same.

Surprisingly, cats aren’t the only animals that can purr. Gorillas, racoons, elephants and even hyenas can purr.

Why Do Cats Purr When You Pet Them?

Purring is your cat’s way of showing you how happy they are. Cats really do love human affection, although some people might not think so. By default, a purring, content cat makes for a calm, happy owner. Cats can make great therapy pets because their response to human affection is easily measurable.

Not All Purrs Are Created Equal

Different cats purr for different reasons, and not all cats will even feel the need to purr in the first place.

As I mentioned above, cats use purring as a way to communicate to their owners and other cats that are around. The different kinds of purrs do in fact sound different to the owner.

Purring can come from stress, happiness, anxiety, pain or wanting to be comforted. Figuring out the reason behind your cat’s purr comes from being an attentive owner. Eventually, you’ll recognize and understand all your cat’s funny meows and different purrs.

Jacquelyn Pica

Jacquelyn Pica is cat mom to Bean Man Jones, a 2-year old adopted stray. She's also a top-notch pet writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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