Why do cats purr?

There are certain sounds that we all associate with certain animals – whether it’s a dog barking, a pig squealing, or a cow mooing. And if you were to hear a purr, you would more than likely start thinking about cats.

Many people consider the sound of a cat purring to be a sign of contentment, but as many experts will argue, that’s not always true.


What is purring?

While it’s important as an owner to learn why your cats purr, it’s always worth learning how they do it on a physiological level.

The cat family encompasses a large number of different species including tigers, lions, pumas, as well as wild and domesticated cats. Surprisingly, not all of these species have the ability to purr, but the ones that are able to, do so by vibrating the laryngeal muscles between 25 and 150hz, and when the cat breathes in and out, the vocal cords separate and produce the sound we’re all familiar with.


Why do cats purr?

A cat will use purring for numerous reasons throughout their life, and will sometimes change the way they purr, or combine it with a variety of other noises such as meowing in an effort to convey an emotion or need. So, if you need to know why cats purr in a variety of daily situations, here are the most likely reasons:

  • They’re hungry – the sound a hungry cat makes when it decides it’s time to eat will often have a less contented tone than normal, with a number of experts stating that this could be an attempt to mimic a baby’s cry in order to gain the attention of the person who controls the supply of food.
  • To reduce stress – similar to a human carrying out an act of self-reassurance such as sucking their thumb or hugging themselves, cats are known to purr if they are under stress, and the action of purring can release endorphins into the blood stream to lift their mood again.
  • To reduce pain - endorphins are also helpful when a cat is in pain. The low frequency hum that a cat feels when they purr is believed to vibrate their entire body, helping them to heal any wounds, aches, strains or swellings they may have fallen victim to.
  • To navigate as a kitten – kittens are born blind and deaf, and so sensing the vibrations their mother produces when she purrs works as an excellent homing beacon in those fragile early days.
  • They’re relaxed and happy – bearing in mind the fact that kittens find contentment with their mother in their first few weeks of life, it is extremely likely that they themselves associate a slow, low-frequency purr with happiness and satisfaction, and find themselves doing so whenever they are at ease as an adult.


What about meowing?

While purring is used as a means of communication with other cats, animals and humans – it’s worth pointing out that meowing is a noise that domesticated cats only use – once they are out of their infancy - when they communicate with humans, not with one another.

As cats have been domesticated over thousands of years, it is entirely likely that they started meowing as adults because humans responded more effectively to their needs when they did. This is also backed up by the discovery of a ‘solicitation purr’ by scientific observers, noting that the combination of meowing and purring simultaneously is employed by a cat at different levels of severity based on their desires or needs – and that this is an evolution of the human-feline relationship.

So remember, if you’re asking yourself why cats purr during their everyday life, there maybe a greater level of complexity involved than you originally thought.


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