Why Do Cats Purr? And What Does It Mean?

Russell Cargill

why do cats purr

Ever thought to yourself, why do cats purr? If you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered just how they make that noise?

What about other cats, do they all purr, or are there some that can’t? If they can’t, does that mean something is wrong with them?

Why Do Cats Purr?

We naturally believe that if our cats purr, they’re happy. However, this isn’t the only reason they do it. A cat’s purr can be a warning, a form of healing, begging for food, or a sign of contentment. 

When a cat purrs it’s communicating with those around them, other cats, animals, or humans.

How Do Cats Purr?

Cats purr by using laryngeal muscles to open and close the glottis (inner space) to create the sound of purring. 

Basically, it works like this, when your feline friend is happy, its brain starts sending out messages to the throat muscles. This then causes those muscles to stiffen, which in turn makes their vocal cords tighten.

Now, as Felix breathes in and out it’s the air rushing over the chords that cause the purring noise. How many times are those vocal chords being strummed? Anywhere between 25 to 150 vibrations per second!

Do Cats Only Purr When Happy?

Cats don’t only use Body Language by swishing and flicking their tails when they’re upset. Cats will let out a low guttural purr and it’s telling whoever’s listening, they’re aren’t very happy. So, if you hear your cat purring, and its tail is flicking back and forth, watch out.

If you’ve ever read Alice in Wonderland, you might remember the Cheshire Cat saying “we’re all mad here”. Why? Well, he says “a dog barks when it’s upset, and wags its tail when it’s happy” but that cats do the opposite. Does this mean that cats are mad when they purr?

Yes, it could!

Cats Purr When They Are hungry

Recent studies at the University of Sussex has uncovered that cats have worked out how to manipulate us yet again. Studies have shown that humans respond to a specific purr frequency in a similar way to how we respond to a crying baby. Meaning, we hear a purr and want to nurture our cat, and feeding is our primal response.

Why Else Do Cats Purr?

Another branch of research has been investigating a theory that cats purr to aid in healing themselves.

In this research they’ve uncovered that frequencies of 24-140 vibrations per minute are therapeutic for bone growth, pain relief, and wound healing – both muscular and tendon injuries showed reduced swelling and pain relief.

Of course, this doesn’t make cats into medical miracles, but it is a pretty nifty ability. Not only that but there is an added benefit to humans, a cat’s purr lowers blood pressure and stress!

A study at the University of Minnesota Stroke Centre over a 10-year period documented that cat owners were 40% less likely to have heart attacks and that purring could be involved. What a perfect reason to pat your cat every day.

They’re Not The Only Cats That Purr

What about other members of the feline family, can they all purr? It might surprise you to know that no, they can’t. This purring ability is limited to the ‘Felis’ genus of domestic cats and some of their closer relatives – bobcats, ocelots, lynx, civets, genets, and mongooses.

Why? It’s to do with the anatomy of their throats. All of these animals have stiffer larynxes, which keep vocal cords tight; this then provides the right conditions for them to purr. Like a harp, the strings only sing if they’re tight.

Now, their other distant cousins, the big cats we’re used to seeing on safaris or in zoos, have a roaring good time! Why do they roar? For members of the ‘Panthera’ family – lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars – roaring is something that evolved with them.

They use their roar as a way to communicate with their pride and to protect their territory. As such, their throat muscles are more flexible, which means their vocal chords can’t be strummed like Felix’s.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes! Cougars and cheetahs! Whilst they’re normally considered to be ‘big cats’ these two examples are rather unique, here’s why.

Members of the cougar tribe – pumas, mountain lions, catamounts, Florida panthers, painters, and ghost cats etc – are considered to be closer in relationship to ‘Felis’ as they can purr due to their stiffer necks.

So, despite being part of the ‘Panthera’ clan and bigger in size, they’re much more like Felix than they appear. Meanwhile, cheetahs are so special that biologists have placed them in a category of their own,‘ Acinonyx’, because unlike ‘Felis’ a cheetah can’t fully retract its claws. Click here for a cool video of a Cheetah purring.

Fun Fact: A big cat’s roar is 114 decibels! That’s one loud lion, to put this in perspective, that’s as loud as a turbo-fan aircraft taking off!

Some Cats Will Purr More Than Others

A lot can come down to personality. Some cats are happier in themselves and thus prone to purring more, others, not so much. Some cat breeds are more vocal than others, for instance, Khao Manee, Burmese, Oriental Shorthair, and Serengeti Cat are all well documented for being loudmouths.

Does that mean there are quieter cats? Yes! Bengal’s, Birman, Chartreux, Havana, Norwegian Forest, and Ragdoll cats are all much quieter than their noisy cousins. There’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just not in their nature to want to sing the roof down.

So long as your vet has given them the all-clear, there’s nothing to worry about, just know that they’ll love you with every hair on their furry body regardless.

Other Animals That Can Purr

Is it only cats that can purr? No. There’s actually an amazing array of other animals that sing beautiful songs. Some of these animals are:

  • Gorillas
  • Ring-tailed Lemurs
  • Raccoons
  • Rabbits
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Squirrels
  • Elephants
  • That’s A Wrap!

    Purring is a skill our furry little friends have mastered whilst their big cat friends are still roaring their heads off.

    Now you understand the mechanics of what makes your cat purr; that it’s their brain sending messages to stiffen their necks, which then tightens their vocal cords, and when your cat breaths in and out, that lovely rumbling hum is the result.

    Why they purr however can mean a variety of things. They can be angry or annoyed, and the purr is a warning. Your cat might be hungry or playing on your soft-side to get you to feed them.

    They might be hurt and healing themselves. Or, your purr-fect companion is blissed out and singing a lovely tune.

    So, next time you hear that melodic rumble, before you reach out to pet them, check to see if your feline friend is asking for help, warning you off, or is trying to take advantage of your love.

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