Why do cats purr? The mystery, explained

24 March 2021

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

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It’s a familiar feeling – your cat comes close, and you can feel them purring. It happens when they come for a pet, a cuddle, when you talk to them, or even just when your furball looks 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? Oh and keep in mind, if your female cat is purring and 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. This movement creates an opening and closing of the space between the vocal chords. 💨 Air from the cat’s inhaling and exhaling 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” behind 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 when happy and nervous, cats can purr when 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 feeling 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 is 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’. A young kitten purring can also help the mother better locate them, and vice versa. Kittens who cannot yet hear will follow the vibrations created by the purring of their mother4. This means that purring can help strengthen the bond between kitten and mama cat.

All that said, we still need more research on feline communication to better understand how cats communicate through purring. But for now, let’s go on with a few more reasons why cats purr.

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 carry 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.

via GIPHY

Why is your cat purring?

To find out why your cat is purring, pay close attention to them. Are they purring while snuggled up cozily on your lap? If so, your kitty is probably just enjoying being close to you. 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 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 cat’s purr is with them 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, hyenas, rabbits, badgers, and squirrels.

Why do cats purr and then bite you?

Sometimes, your cat might be 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 casual 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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