Cats may purr when we hold and pet them, or when we feed them. But as we are starting to understand purring is a complex mechanism in cats.
There are few experiences more magical than holding a cat when it’s purring. There is something incredibly special about it especially when it’s sitting on your lap as it does so. It seems to be the ultimate expression of calm contentment and the mood is contagious. A few minutes of purring can change your whole day around, reminding you that everything is fine, and you don’t have to take yourself so seriously. It has mystical, magical qualities.
But all of this speaks to our human experience of our purring cats. It’s the most common sound that cats make yet we often know much more about meowing, chirping, hissing, chattering, and growling than we do about purring.
For a long while, it was thought that a cat’s purr was linked to a certain type of deoxygenated blood flowing to the right side of the heart. But recent research suggests that it’s much more likely that the purr is a noise coming out of the muscles in the larynx. As they move, they dilate and constrict the muscles surrounding the vocal folds, and the air vibrates as a result – creating the purr.
This then begs the question from the cat’s perspective – why do they purr at all? What brings it about? What about purring is useful or pleasant? Why have cats evolved this rather strange predilection?
In this article, we’ll explore these questions and hope to shed some light on this unique feature of our favorite feline friends. So, purr yourself a drink – let’s get to it!
The main reason that cats purr is to communicate how they are feeling. Our intuitions are often right here and, for the most part, your cat will purr when it’s happy or content. When your cat is in a calm, relaxed environment and it is receiving that tender loving care that we all should be giving out to our pets, it will purr in response to communicating its contentment. It also communicates that the cat is feeling very sociable at present, which can be a rare occurrence depending on your cat’s personality.
It’s a mistake though to assume that the only emotion being expressed is happiness. It’s not true that they only purr when they are happy. Another common reason is when a cat is hungry and is looking for food. In these situations, the cat will often combine their purring with some meows and yaps to get your attention because they want to be fed. It’s a wonderful example of them using their cuteness to get their owner to act on certain impulses. And who are we to stand in their way!
Beyond that, it can sometimes indicate stress, nervousness, or even fear in certain situations. These are much rarer, but they still show up in the limited research that has been done.
The truth is that we don’t have a very firm grasp on the communication aspect just yet – we still need much more research in the space. For now – it’s relatively safe to assume that, for the most part, a cat’s purr is indicating contentment or hunger.
Kittens will begin purring when they are just a few days old because it helps their mothers locate them at feeding times. It’s similar to the way that human infants will cry in order to draw their mother’s attention when they feel hungry.
Outside of feeding times, young kittens will also purr in order to signal to their mother that they are doing ok. That is a safety mechanism of sorts that gives the mother some comfort and peace of mind to know that her babies are not in distress and are well taken care of. There is also some research to say that purring actually helps to cement the mother-kitten bond and is an invaluable component of building healthy family dynamics.
Lastly, the mother cat may even use purring as a lullaby of sorts – to calm and soothe their children. What a sight it is to imagine a mother cat purring a lullaby for her progeny. It’s a beautiful part of the cat’s lifecycle and one of the many reasons why cats can be so endearing to us humans.
Soothing and Healing
Purring can also be used as a means of relieving pain or discomfort by adult cats. In the same way that human infants might suck on their thumb or on a pacifier in order to self-soothe, some cats will purr to accomplish the same effect – giving them some relief from whatever is ailing them. It’s a means of self-regulation, a way to calm themselves down and relax some of the painful sensations that they might be experiencing.
Taking that one step further, there are some experts that believe that the low frequency of purring actually contributes to real, tangible healing. There have been numerous reports describing how purring helps to heal bones and wounds, build and repair tendons, ease breathing, decrease swelling, and assist in a range of other use-cases. It’s unclear exactly how this works, we haven’t seen enough research yet, but it seems that the purring might actually be a crucial component of a cat’s ability to recover from various injuries and illnesses (study).
A cat’s purr is also incredibly beneficial for other animals around it. It seems to have a significant psychological effect on sick or injured animals in the vicinity or even us human owners – bringing others relief and the joys of companionship. Some research has shown that petting a cat and enveloping yourself in that purring proves to be a fantastic form of stress relief and is linked to a number of improved healthcare outcomes over the medium to long term. It’s just what the doctor ordered!
So, there you have it! A brief dive into why our furry friends purr and what benefit it brings to them and to all of us around them. It’s a fascinating area of research that continues to evolve, but from our perspective – it can only be a good thing!
Purr away furry friends, purr away.