Most of us associate purring with a happy feline. However, cats don’t only purr when they are content.
But then what does it mean when your kitten or big kitty purrs?
Let’s get to work exploring some of the reasons cats purr, including physiological reasons, mental/emotional reasons, and evolutionary reasons.
Purrers vs. Roarers
Before we get into just why cats purr, it’s interesting to note that not all cats purr. In the wild kingdom, there are cats who roar, and others who purr (yes! Some wild cats do purr!).
Tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards are the only wild felines believed to roar, and this is due to a flexible hyoid bone and specialized larynx. Roaring cats use this vocalization to protect their territory, communicate, and express anger. These big cats do seem to make a sound similar to a purr when they exhale, but it may or may not be a true purr.
In the wild, civets, cheetahs, lynx, and servals (among others) are known purrers. Due to a non-flexible hyoid bone, these cats are unable to roar. It is awe-inspiring to see a wildcat purr.
A non-roaring cat in the wild will use scent to mark her territory and express fear and anger by fluffing up the hair on her neck and back, arching her back, or hissing. Much like domestic cats, felines in the wild use their purrs as a sign of contentment or in times of distress.
Physiology and healing properties
When a cat purrs, her laryngeal (vocal cord) muscles are twitching at approximately 25 to 150 vibrations per second and can vary from 26 – 520 Hertz frequencies.
At 24 – 140 vibrations per minute, a purr is thought to have healing properties and can offer pain relief, and stimulate tissue and bone healing (very similar to the way high impact exercise benefits a human being’s bones).
Maybe this is why cats are said to have nine lives? Cat! Heal thyself!
Healing effect on humans
The purring of your cat could have a positive effect on your health too. There have been non-scientific studies going around that show that a cat’s purr can help it and the humans it interacts with heal wounds faster, but this is so far unsubstantiated.
Kittens and Mama Cats
Kittens can purr within a few days of being born. Their purrs are most likely a way to communicate with their mother to let her know they are doing okay. Likewise, the mother cat uses her purrs to let her kittens know where she is, as cats are born blind. She will also use purring to soothe her babies when they nurse, much like a human mother might sing or hum lullabies to her infant when she feeds him.
So, how do we decipher our feline friends’ purrs? Very simply, by paying attention!
Watching for clues such as these, and associating her murmurs with her actions, will help you understand your kitty better.
Happiness and contentment are the feelings we most often associate with purring. Is she curled up in a sunray on the floor in front of a window? Or sleeping on her back on your favorite blanket with what looks like a smile on her face? Those are sure signs your pet is happy and feeling pretty good.
Did you just come home from work and she is happy to see you? Maybe she wants a snuggle or a scratch between her ears. Is she underfoot while you’re reading your mail in the kitchen, purring loudly and maybe making chirpy, loud mews? It is safe to assume she is probably hoping you’ll feed her soon!
When was the last time you changed her litter? Is she hovering around the area her box is stationed? Maybe walking back and forth between it and you, purring loudly every time she gets to her toilet area?
Did you pick up your cat to hold or cuddle him? If he’s purring, he’s not necessarily happy. Look for other signs to decipher what he might be feeling. Is he writhing to get out of your arms or digging his claws into your arms? He’s communicating with you, most likely saying ‘put me down!’ If he sits happily and seems relaxed, you’re probably safe from his wrath and can continue your snuggle fest.
Cats are also thought to purr when they are anxious, in distress, or in pain. We found out earlier that the frequency of their purrs is thought to aid in physical healing, but it is also argued that purring might be used as a self-soothing mechanism.
When humans meditate, they often rely on vibrations brought on by chanting (think ‘ohhhhhmmm’) to help them to relax.
In a very similar way, when a cat purrs, these vibrations might help release endorphins that are thought to help with easing stress. Do YOU feel relaxed when your kitty is purring in your lap? Imagine how SHE must feel!
Evolution and adaptation
It is very possible domestics cats have learned, over time, the effect their purring has on the people who feed, house, and pamper them. Take into consideration that at between 220 and 520 Hz, a purr is thought to be quite similar to the decibel levels of a baby’s cries.
A crying infant usually draws a quick response from one of her parents, and a cat, making herself known this loudly, might have found she will get the same quick action to meet her needs.
Your feline housemate is pretty smart!
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More Purring, Please!
Would you like to encourage more purring in your furry friend? We’ve seen how it can benefit your cat, so more of it wouldn’t be a bad thing!
Does she like toys? Feathers on a stick, a crumpled piece of paper, a bouncy ball, (make sure this is not so small she could swallow it!) or a stuffed mouse, (laced with catnip, this might become a favorite!) can bring out the playful side of your pet. Playing with her (on HER terms, when SHE feels like it) is good for her physically and will also help boost her feelings of contentment.
Your kitty will not wait to be invited onto your lap (or your laptop). If he wants attention, he will make himself quite at home next to you, on you, or right on top of whatever you’re working on. Take a break, give his belly a rub, scratch his head, bring him into your lap, and stroke his awesome furriness. He will likely reward you with some blissful purring. Not to mention, you’ll likely be his best friend (at least for a minute).
Place a chair, sofa, or her scratching tree near a window and she will probably perch there and watch out the window for birdies. This can bring her hours of pleasure and entertainment.
Make sure your special pal has fresh water, a clean litterbox, her favorite food, some toys, and a scratching post or two to keep her satisfied while you’re away from the house. She’ll be less likely to destroy your stuff and will probably reward you with ample attention and plenty of contented purrs when you get home.
To summarize, there are many reasons why your kitty friend might purr, and if you’re a seasoned cat owner (who really *owns* a cat?) or are sensitive to your pets’ behavior, you will likely be able to differentiate the reasons for her purrs & learn more about your feline buddy while you’re at it.