Why do cats purr? The mystery explained!

19 February 2021

Purrrr... every cat lover knows that sound, vibration and warm fuzzy feeling! But where does a cat's purr come from? And what does it mean? Find out now!

grey cat sleeping on orange background

It’s a familiar feeling – your cat comes close, and you perceive them purring. It happens when they come for a pet, cuddle, when you talk to them, or even just when kitty is looking you in the eyes. Humans don’t purr (as far as we know?), so what’s this strange biological phenomenon all about? Let’s learn a thing or two about our feline friends: how and why do cats purr? By the way, if your female cat is especially affectionate, she may be in heat. Read more about female cats in heat while you’re here.

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How do cats purr? The biology of purring

Cats, just like their purring abilities, are unique – but you know that. Let’s look at exactly how a cat purrs before we explore the why.

In a cat’s body, purring is made possible thanks to the larynx (voice box) and laryngeal muscles in the throat, and a neural oscillator in the cat’s brain1.

🧠 First, a signal is sent from the cat’s brain to the throat, which causes the throat muscles to twitch rapidly. With this movement, there is an opening and closing of the space between the vocal chords. 💨 Air from the cat’s inhale and exhale moves past the vibrating muscles, causing the familiar sound we know as purring. 🐈

🔊 Listen to some adorable kittens purring while they snuggle and sleep together in the video clip below (sound on):

Why do cats purr?

Now that we know the how of a cat’s purr (meow!), let’s explore why cats purr. A cat’s purr has been a thing of mystery for most of history; only now are we beginning to understand what’s behind the soothing feline phenomenon. There are several theories as to why cats purr. You might be thinking, the answer is obvious: a cat purrs when they’re happy! But the truth is a bit more complex.

🎭 Just as humans tend to smile both in cases of happiness and nervousness, cats can purr when they are experiencing either pleasure or pain. So purring is not just caused by the joy your cat feels when you pet them – although that may be part of it.

So what triggers the purring phenomenon in cats – why do cats purr? To find the answer, let’s look at the scenarios in which a cat might purr. Cats purr when they are:

  • happy, content, or feel pleasure
  • being pet, tickled or otherwise engaged
  • in their litter or close to their (cat) mother
  • grooming each other
  • in heat
  • in pain, afraid, or anxious2
  • giving birth or nursing
  • sick, in pain, or stressed
  • dying or being put to sleep

As you can see, there are many scenarios in which a cat might purr. But what then is the purpose or function of purring?

The Purpose of Purring

1) Communication & Social Bonding

One theory states that purring is a form of communication3, like talking, crying, or smiling in humans. For example, a cat might purr as a way to tell it’s biological mother, ‘I’m here, I’m okay’. Purring in young kittens can also help the mother to better locate them and vise versa; kittens who cannot yet hear will follow the purring vibrations of their mother4. In this way purring can also help strengthen the bond between kitten and mama cat.

More research is needed in the area of feline communication to better understand how cats communicate through purring.

Just as we smile or laugh for different reasons, cats purr for different purposes.

2) Self-soothing & Healing

There is also evidence to suggest that purring has healing powers. Since purring actually releases endorphins (feel-good chemicals) in the cat’s brain, cat experts suspect that purring is a form of self-soothing5. So cats may purr to calm themselves, or even to heal pain. The vibrations created by cats purring have a frequency that is associated with healing in traditional human medicine6. It is believed that purring may actually help to keep your cat’s bones strong!


Why is your cat purring?

To find out why your cat is purring, pay close attention to your kitty. Are they purring while snuggled up cozily on your lap? If so, your kitty is probably just enjoying the closeness between you two. Are they purring heavily while grooming themselves? Then check for any signs of pain or injury in your cat. And if your newborn kittens, pregnant, or mother-cat are purring, well this is probably a normal part of the mother-kitten bonding ritual!

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Does my cat purr when I’m not around?

Yes! Contrary to what we may think sometimes, our cat’s don’t just purr just for us. Cats often purr as kittens; as a way to communicate with their mother. They purr while giving birth, and at the end of their life when they are dying. A cats purr is with him or her throughout their whole life, not just during the time spent with hoomans!

Do all cats purr?

Typically all domestic cats purr; as well as some other (big) cats in the Felidae family (such as bobcats, cheetahs, and puma). Lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards don’t purr. This is due to a difference in the bone structure in their vocal chords; a softer bone allows them to make the ‘roar’ sound, whereas purring cats feature a hard bone which makes purring vibrations possible.

Besides cats, animals in the lesser known Viverridae family also purr. And other animals make purr-like sounds while eating, for example, such as bears, foxes, hyaenas, rabbits, badgers, and squirrels.

Why do cats purr and then bite you?

Sometimes, your cat might by lying on your lap, purring dreamily one moment and suddenly bite you the next! What does this mean? Perhaps, your feline friend was feeling unwell to begin with and your absent minded petting rubbed them the wrong way. Or perhaps, your kitty just gave you a ‘love bite’; a sign of affection. Biting could also be a sign of aggression in cats, so be careful to observe what your cat likes or does not like and leave them space to avoid being bitten further. Cats will generally let you know what they want. The best rule of thumb is: let your cat come to you for cuddles – and respect them when their body language says ‘no’.

For more insights on how and why cats purr, check out the video below.

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