Why Do Cats Purr? And What Does It Mean?

Cat resting head on owners hand

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? 

In this article I’ll explore these questions, and provide answers to help you get a better understanding of that wonderful tune. 

How Do Cats Purr?

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 causes the purring noise. How many times are those vocal chords being strummed? Anywhere between 25 to 150 vibrations per second! 

So, that’s the mechanics behind purring, but that doesn’t tell us why, and believe it or not, but being happy isn’t the only reason cats purr..

Ragdoll kitten can purr

Why Do Cats Purr

It’s natural to think that if your cat’s purring that they’re happy. But this isn’t the only reason they do it. When a cat purrs it’s communicating with those around them, other cats, animals, or humans.

What they’re saying can be a variety of messages,a cat’s purr can be a warning, a form of healing, begging for food, or a sign of contentment. Keep reading to find out more!

Do Cats Only Purr When Happy?

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 don’t only swish-and-flick their tails when they’re upset. Cats purr. It’s so low it’s guttural, and it’s telling whoever’s listening that Felix is not a happy boy. So, if you hear your cat purring, and its tail is flicking back and forth, watch out.

orange cat purring

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 purrfect 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. 

lynx have the ability to purr

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, they 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

How loud is a big cat’s roar? Try 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 Purr More Than Others

Why? Well, it can be personal. It can be breed. It can be physical. What do we mean by this? 

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, Siamese, Burmese, Oriental Shorthair and Japanese Bobtail are all well documented for being loudmouths. 

Purring Norwegian Forrest Cat

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.

Note: Rescue cats: some cats can have experienced forms of trauma that has affected their vocal chords, and this will prevent them from serenading you.

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

So, Why Do Cats Purr?

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.