- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
I’m the parent of a toddler and I can tell you that it’s exceedingly easy to tell when he is happy. Is he smiling? If yes, he’s happy. If no, he needs something: food, attention, comfort, mental stimulation, etc.
I also have two dogs and their emotions, too, are simple enough to judge. Are they wagging their tails? If yes, they’re happy. If no, they need something: food, attention—you see where I’m going.
So it only holds true, then, that cats must have their own magically easy way to tell when they’re happy: purring. Is she purring? If yes, she’s happy, if no, she needs something, right?
Not so fast. It turns out that—and this is a bit of a ‘no, duh’ to any cat owner—cats are complicated creatures full of mystery, intrigue, and complicated inner workings. While purring is often a side effect of a cat’s contentment, that’s not always the case. Let’s take a deeper look to understand just why cats purr.
What is cat purring?
Before we answer the question of why do cats purr, let’s first take a look at how they do it. While this doesn’t seem like a controversial question, for years there was disagreement among experts about how cats were making the raspy, vibrato sounds we call purring.
It turns out, cats don’t have a purr organ or anything like that. Instead, purring is a result of rapid fluttering in the larynx and the diaphragm, according to the Library of Congress. The purring sound is a product of breath passing by the larynx as a cat breathes.
Some wild cats are also known to purr. Bobcats, cheetahs, the Eurasian lynx, and pumas are all able to conjure this particular hum, but big cats like the lion, leopard, jaguar, and tiger can’t.
Purring begins very early in a kitten’s life, only a few days post-birth. Scientists surmise that initially purring is a signal to the mother cat that her kitten is healthy and well and also aids in the bonding process.
But why they keep purring for the rest of their lives—well, that’s a whole other discussion.
Cats have plenty of reasons why they purr
Curled up on your lap or rubbing against your leg begging for scritches, our cat’s sweet little purrs are a big reason why we love them so much. It just feels good to have such an outward sign that you’re making someone you love so darn happy.
While most of the time a cat’s purr is a signal of happiness, it’s not the only reason a cat might purr.
1. It’s a way to say “I love you”
While cats are famously aloof and standoffish, any cat friend knows that behind that detached façade is really a furry little ball of love. And guess what? They want you to know how much they love you. Purring is a way for cats to communicate their appreciation for all the things you do for them.
2. Fear, stress, and anxiety
You know how sometimes when you’re nervous you might laugh inappropriately—like when someone trips in front of you—or smile? According to PetMD, cats sometimes use their purring power very similarly, because they just don’t immediately know any other remedy for what’s bothering them.
Purring also helps calm kitties down, a sort of feline self-soothing. If you’re noticing your cat purring often and there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason, you might want to be on the lookout for stressors that might be troubling your cat.
Cats have a million quirky ways to make sure you remember that it’s dinnertime, and one of those ways is by purring. An “I’m hungry” purr is often more plaintive and a bit louder than its “I’m happy” counterpart, so next time your cat is purring around the kitchen, know that she might actually be talking to you. About food, of course.
4. To purr-suade
You know when your cat wants something—say for play or attention—how they have a specific way of combining a loud purr with a meow or yip and even before you know what it is that they want, you know they want something? It turns out that specific pitch eerily mimics that of a human child, something we might be hardwired to respond to immediately. That’s pretty darn clever, cats, pretty darn clever.
What are the benefits of purring?
Of course, we know that cats are super special just because they’re so darn cute and so feline. But did you also know that they are healers? It’s true. Studies, like this one from the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, suggest that a cat’s purr can also help the cat heal herself.
Let me explain. The vibrational frequency of a cat’s purr mimic frequencies that aid in the treatment and healing of bone fractures, joint problems, lesions and sores, swelling or edema, and muscle strains. It seems that when cats purr, they are actually doing self-healing. Perhaps that’s the truth behind the myth that every cat has nine lives!
But the restorative properties of purring don’t just benefit your kitty—they can have health benefits for you as well. A 1997 German study suggests that humans have improved healing responses for bone fractures, soft tissue healing, and edema when treated with sound frequencies.
Guess what? These healing sound ranges are within the range of a cat’s purr—between 18-35 MHz. While research is still being done, it’s possible that a purring cat can have health benefits for an injured or ailing owner.
Finally, purring is a way of bonding for mother and kittens as well as owner and pet. I mean, don’t you just love getting a purr back from your favorite feline?
The moral of the cat purring story: Never miss a chance to snuggle up with your favorite cat, give him some rubs, and bathe yourself in the beautiful music of your kitten’s purr.