Our cats make a lot of interesting noises. But the most common and most well-loved is the cat purr. There’s something about it that appeals to us, calms us down and makes us appreciate the strange but special relationship a human can build with a furry little creature.
So why do cats purr? You might think the answer is simple, but, as with most things cat, the issue is more complex than you first would have thought. A cat can purr for many reasons, and being aware of all these reasons can help a cat owner provide their kitty with exactly what they need.
How Do Cats Purr?
Before we delve into the “why”, we thought we’d first look at how cats purr. Although this remains a topic of debate, the most likely answer is the noise comes from the muscles in the cat’s larynx. When they move, they constrict and dilate the glottis (the part of the larynx that surrounds the vocal cords) and the air vibrates when the cat breathes, which causes a purring sound.
Interestingly, not all members of the cat family can purr — in fact, those who can roar can’t purr, and those who can purr can’t roar. This is all down to the small bone located inside the cat’s vocal cords. When the bone is hardened (such as in domestic cats), it only allows air vibrations while exhaling and inhaling, resulting in a purr. For bigger, wild cats, the bone is softer and more flexible, allowing for a deep roaring sound.
Now onto why our furry friends purr in the first place…
Cats Purr When They’re Happy
Cats purr when they’re pleased, relaxed and content. You’ve probably seen your cat lying on their back, exposing their belly (a clear sign of trust — don’t be tempted to betray this trust and go for a belly rub!), with their eyes lazily half-closed, purring away. These are sure signs your cat is on cloud nine and living their best life.
Purring Helps Mum and Kitten Bond
Adorably, purring also has a very maternal purpose. Anyone who has been around newborn kittens knows they begin to purr when they are only a few days old. Purring serves a purpose — in the wild, it is a relatively quiet way for mother cats and kittens to communicate without being overheard by predators. Purring can let mum know they need a feed. This habit can carry on to adulthood, which is why you may have noticed your grown-up cat purring before or during feeding time.
Purring also helps mum and kitten bond — think of it as a little feline lullaby.
Cats Can Purr When Stressed
Purring is also a tool to soothe a very stressed cat. You might notice a cat purring after a dog chase, or after being startled. This is similar to how people can soothe themselves by laughing or crying. You can tell if your cat is stress purring by picking up on their other cues — are they otherwise content, or are they fidgety, agitated and on edge? If so, they might just need a little alone-time in a quiet room. Or they might want a relaxed cuddle with their favourite human.
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Cats Purr When They Want Something from Their Human
Cats can’t speak our language, so they need to find other ways to talk to us. Have you noticed your cat’s purr can sound different in different situations? Their content purr might sound very different from the “I’m hungry, feed me now” purr. Listen next time, and you’ll notice they combine their normal purr with a bit of a mew — incredibly, studies have found our cats might be modifying their purr to sound like human babies, to appeal to our nurturing instincts. The purrs might get more frequent or more insistent — they’ll try whatever works to get what they want or need. You might think of it as manipulative — we think of it as purrsuasive.
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Purring Can Help Cats Heal
Get ready for a bit of feline science. Your cat’s purr vibrates at 25-150 HZ. This is the same frequency that often assists in therapeutic medicine for physical healing in humans, which can help to increase bone density. For cats, the vibrations inside their own body can help to heal injuries, reduce swelling, repair tendons and rebuild bones, while acting as a form of pain relief. Heartbreakingly, this is why you’ll find some cats who are in pain are purring away — despite the effort it requires, it is serving a protective, soothing and comforting function. Some cat experts say they have observed cats snuggled up together and purring when one is injured — to help hurry the healing of their fellow cat.
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