As most kitty owners know, cats are complicated creatures. They may not greet you at the door (like dogs do), and as a species, they tend to be independent and keep to themselves. Their personalities are also known for being a teensy bit judgmental and also at times, mischievous. But beyond cats' mysterious personalities, one of the most elusive things about the cat is its purring. Why do cats purr? What do cats' purrs mean? And what do we, as pet owners, need to understand about purrs?
Many people assume that a purring cat indicates happiness. While this may be true in some scenarios, cat behavioral experts are finding out that the cat's purr may be a bit more complicated than we originally thought. Like a dog's bark or whine—neither of which happen for one exclusive reason per say—a cat purr may take a bit of digging and decoding to figure out.
So, what do you need to know about cat purrs? Parade consulted a few experts in the field to dive deep into why cats purr, what a cat purr means, and more.
Why Do Cats Purr?
Like a dog's whine, bark, howl, or cry, purring for cats is a way of communicating. Now, what they are intending to communicate, of course, depends on a few different factors, but first and foremost, cat owners should understand that purring is a way for cats to get a message across.
"Cats vocalize as part of their normal behavior to communicate, Russell Hartstein, CDBC, CPDT-KA, Fear Free Certified animal behaviorist and pet care expert at FunPawCare.com tells Parade.
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Generally, cat purring is considered a good thing and can be interpreted as a sign of a happy, content cat.
"Purring is normally associated with friendliness, comfort, love, and comfort," Dr. Hartstein explains.
It's also important to note that cats purr to communicate with other cats as well as with humans. Unlike the cat's meow—which according to the ASPCA is an evolved form of cat behavior designed only to communicate with humans—cat purrs convey messages to both people and other cats.
But while a purring cat could potentially be a sign of happiness, it's crucial to examine the behavior and body language that a cat also delivers at the time of purring.
"However, as with all sounds, there are many subtleties to a cat's vocalization," Dr. Hartstein says. "Making sure your cat is actually purring and not chirping, hissing, growling or howling, caterwaul, or the prosodic of the sound in conjunction with the overall environment and situation tell a lot about the vocalization. You cannot just take a sound in isolation without taking the entire cat and the cat's body language into consideration."
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Why Do Cats Purr When You Pet Them?
A cat may purr when you pet them. According to Dr. Ochoa, this is a sign from the cat that you are doing something right or good by petting them. As in, the cat is comforted by and happy with the job you are doing petting them.
"Cats usually purr when they are happy or content," Dr. Ochoa says. "Purring is a good thing for your cat to do. This means they are happy or content with what you are doing. This is also their way of saying that they love you."
Aww, see? Your cat really does love you!
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Is Purring a Sign of Happiness?
Cats can purr as a way to indicate or communicate happiness. As mentioned above, a cat may purr when you pet them. Dr. Ochoa explains that this is a way for a cat to communicate their appreciation or love for you. Similarly, cats may also purr during dinnertime.
"Some cats will purr when they are eating, especially if they love to eat," Dr. Ochoa adds.
Mostly, purring is a sign of happiness—where it's induced by petting, love, or by food. It can also be a way for a cat, but especially a kitten, to provide self-comfort or ask for attention.
What Do Cats' Purrs Mean?
A cat's purr generally means that the cat is content, happy, or wants you to keep doing what you're doing (ie. petting it). Cats may also purr when eating because, let's face it, cats are generally happy when eating. A cat may also purr as a way to self-comfort or if recovering from an illness or injury.
"Some cats will purr when they are healing as it has been shown that purring can help speed up healing time," Dr. Ochoa says.
According to Scientific American, "Scientists have demonstrated that cats produce the purr through intermittent signaling of the laryngeal and diaphragmatic muscles. Cats purr during both inhalation and exhalation with a consistent pattern and frequency between 25 and 150 Hertz. Various investigators have shown that sound frequencies in this range can improve bone density and promote healing."
The healing purr is perhaps the reason behind purring that is most complex. While it's not fully understood by scientists or behavioral experts, many believe that because cats conserve energy during rest, purring could potentially be "a low-energy mechanism that stimulates muscles and bones without a lot of energy."
In the same way, some human doctors say sleep fights cancer, a combination of rest and purring may fight sickness in cats.
Cats also may combine a purr with a meow for a one-two punch. This is a specific kind of vocalization with a specific meaning: Your cat wants food! According to MPR News, animal communication expert Karen McComb calls this combo the "solicitation purr."
However, the solicitation purr is not universal to all cats. Remember, meowing is a cat communication reserved for humans only. Therefore, cats who use the solicitation purr are generally the only cats that have strong relationships with humans. In this scenario, a cat may try to be extra persuasive in order to get food: Hence trying two sounds at once.
Where Does Purring Come From?
Have you ever wondered how a cat purrs? Cats actually don't have a specific apparatus or body part that enables them to purr. Cats simply move the muscles of their voice box faster than usual; as the muscles move quicker than normal, the cat's diaphragm—located in their chest cavity—moves, too. Together, these two quick movements produce the sound of purring as the cat then breathes and the air intake touches the muscles that are moving.
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