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Why do cats purr?

Original Publication Date: April 7, 2015
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

Purring is a way cats communicate with us and each other. Blind and deaf newborn kittens immediately respond to the vibrations of their mother cat's purrs to find their source of food and protection.

Kittens begin to purr back by 2 days of age. Purring is not a learned behavior for kittens, and it apparently can be retained through adulthood.

Experts are still debating the exact mechanism that creates the purr but are very specific in the definition of the purr. It is a continuous sound that occurs on both the inhale and exhale as a cat breathes. Meows happen only on the exhale. Researchers do seem to agree that there is a unique neural oscillator or purr center in the brain.

Authorities have designated household cats and some of the small wild roaming cats like the cheetah, puma and ocelot as purring cats. They cannot, however, roar. Slightly different throat structures of the larger lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards allow them to roar, but they cannot purr. They are described as roaring cats.

Among the "purring cats," all purrs are not the same. Cat lovers and researchers have studied purring behavior in great detail and can distinguish different categories of purrs. There is the happy purr of a cat who is resting with buddies or grooming his feline pals. A cat curled on his person's lap delighting in lots of pets also utters a happy purr.

These purrs range from almost inaudible to a rumble of pleasure.

One hears a hopeful or solicitous purr when a cat wants something. This is the purr a cat might use to awaken an owner to announce that it is breakfast time or that he wants his human to sit and make a lap or open a door. Hopeful purrs are generally one-on-one between a cat and his caregiver.

A fast, urgent purr even when being stroked indicates stress. Stress purrs are often associated with a new environment that results in an anxious cat. Gentle stroking and reassurance from his human usually turns stress purrs into happy purrs given a bit of time.

A continuous self-soothing purr may be heard when a cat is distressed, chronically ill, in pain, or even giving birth. The self-soothing purr may aid in self-healing or recovery as purring stimulates the release of endorphins which are the body's own pain-killers.

The purr is often considered the sign of a contented happy cat. It is important to be aware of the body language and surroundings of the purr as a cat may be saying that he wants human action in the form of pets or food.

A purr may be dispatching a message announcing an unhappy circumstance of stress, injury, or pain.

Remember, purring is a form of feline communication. It is up to you to correctly read the message.


Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at HolisticTouchTherapy.com.