Why Do Cats Purr?

The hidden reasons behind purring might surprise you.

If you’re a cat owner, you’ve undoubtedly had the experience of curling up with your kitten as he purrs seemingly contentedly next to you. Most of us tend to take a cat purring as a sign that they are happy, and often this is the case, but it is not the only reason that cats purr, and we humans are still not, despite our science and our love of solving mysteries, still entirely sure why cats purr at all!

What makes a cat purr?

Of course, that hasn’t stopped us from guessing, and some of those guesses are likely to be pretty close to the mark. For example, purely on an observational basis, it does seem likely that one cat purring meaning is contentedness. So many of us have seen our cats purr when they are happy and feeling good, so it is a no-brainer to suggest that happiness is one purr factor.

Many of us will also have noticed that our cats tend to purr when they want something from us, with that something usually being food. Some of us will also have noticed that our cats purr when they are scared or they have hurt themselves, which would suggest that purring is not a wholly positive thing either! 

Weirdly, it has also been found that certain purring frequencies will stimulate the regeneration of a cat’s bones – so it could be that purring is actually good for our cats on a physical level, but it does make getting to the bottom of this purring thing a bit more difficult! 

How do cats purr?

Cats purr by using their diaphragm muscles and larynx, which they engage as they breathe in and out, although we haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of how it is exactly that the central nervous system creates and controls the contractions that are so evident in a cat’s purr. In the 19th Century, it was thought by taxonomists, that cats could only perform one of the following functions: purring or roaring.

They did not believe it was possible for a feline to do both, and so they classified all members of the Felidae family into purrers (Feline) and roarers (Pantherinae). 

That is no longer the case and the modern thinking is that the majority of cats can purr, with a few likely exceptions that include:

  • Leopard
  • Jaguar
  • Lion
  • Tiger
  • Cloud leopard
  • Snow leopard

Interestingly, both cougars and cheetahs have been witnessed purring.

So what’s it all about?

What makes cats purr is likely to remain somewhat of a mystery for a while; if they use it as a form of communication, it can only be meant for their closest associates because purr frequencies are extremely low, prohibiting them from carrying far. These kinds of low-frequency vocal sounds are, in other mammals, often used in social situations that the animals see to be positive, such as nursing, relaxing, grooming, and showing friendship.

However, it is more likely that purring is a mechanism whereby cats can soothe themselves, a bit like how we laugh or cry or do something distracting to take our minds off things and release negative emotions. This could be why some carts, ads observed by veterinarians, will lay down together and purr when one of their numbers has been injured, but the proof for this is thin on the ground.

There’s also the fact that domestic cat purring has been shown to resonate at 26 Hertz, which is exactly the right frequency to promote bone and tissue regeneration, which would suggest that it could be a mechanism for self0healing, or used as a way to prevent bone and muscle wastage in cats that would usually be out hunting and on the move a lot more if they were still in the wild.

The Verdict

Very little, to some extent, cat purring meaning is beyond our human comprehension and it would seem that cats purr for a variety of reasons, which can be significantly different from culture to culture. Just as we laugh and cry for more than one reason, cats may similarly purr for various reasons too, and as a cat owner, you’re just going to have to be content with translating your cat’s purrs based on your own observations of your kitty because you are the person who knows him best after all.