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Published on September 5th, 2014 | by Debbie Martin


Why Does Your Cat Purr?

There’s little in life more soothing than the sound (and feel) of a purring cat. Curled up on your lap, eyes closed, or rubbing against your hand as they make their way into the living room, the sound of your cat purring is reassuring and relaxing. But do you know why does your cat purr? No? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. For centuries, scientists have been trying to figure out the answer to that very question. You may think that with today’s advanced technology, they’ve come up with the answer, but you’d be wrong. In fact, we still don’t know exactly why cats purr. That doesn’t stop them from coming up with interesting theories and ideas about why cats purr though. So we thought we’d share some of them with you. Next time your little fur-ball is purring away happily on your lap, bear these in mind!

How do cats purr?

You know that little contented rumbling noise that cats make? It has to come from somewhere, right? It seems that even how cats purr remains a mystery to scientists and as yet there are no firm answers. The most likely opinion is that a purr is produced when the muscles of the diaphragm and larynx vibrate. It’s believed that nerves found in the voice box cause the larynx to make the vocal chords vibrate, whilst the diaphragm pushes air in and out. This creates the contented low hum that we all love to hear. It is interesting that cat purrs are produced both when cats inhale and when they exhale.

Big cats

In the past, scientists presumed it was only domesticated cats that could purr. In recent years, they have discovered that big cats including the Eurasian Lynx, Puma, Cheetah and Bobcat also produce a sound similar to purring. Big cats such as Jaguars, Leopards, Tigers and Lions also make a purring sound, but this is different from ‘true’ purring as it doesn’t happen both when they inhale and when they exhale. As a general rule, you’ll find big cats that purr cannot roar and vice versa.

So why do cats purr?

We all generally assume that our cats purr when they are content and happy. Just one look at your relaxing, purring cat asleep on your knee tells you all you need to know. Or does it? Not many people know that cats also purr when they are frightened or in pain and whilst giving birth. So what is the reason that they purr; what does it mean?

The meaning of purring can change slightly as cats grow older. Kittens have already learned to purr by the time they are two days old. While nursing, kittens will purr and their mum will purr back. It’s not known exactly what this means, but it is thought that kittens are purring to seek reassurance from their mum, whilst she is purring to comfort them.

When cats get older, the reason behind their purring changes. Whilst that soft purring noise is usually a sign of relaxation and contentment, it can also signal that your cat is seeking reassurance. Purring can also send a message to possible enemies or threats, letting them know that your cat is harmless and poses no threat. There are other uses for purring too. Cats may use it as a way of asking to be petted or when they are hungry. When cats are frightened, they may use purring to comfort and reassure themselves. One interesting thing that scientists have discovered is that the frequency of a cats purr encourages bone growth and healing. Some people believe there may be a more practical reason for purring – improving bone density to keep the cat’s skeleton strong.

When cats stop purring

If your cat suddenly stops purring, it’s a good idea to speak to your vet to make sure your cat is okay. Whilst some cats purr loudly and often, others purr so quietly it can be hard to hear them. Only you know your cat’s usual purring sound. Your cat’s purr is unique to him and it’s what makes him so special!

We may never know for sure the reason why cats purr. The comforting, low hum of a purring cat is one of the most relaxing sounds in the world, so maybe it’s not essential that we find out the reasons behind it. When your cat is curled up on your lap, purring and content, just sit back, relax and enjoy the moment. Purring is one of life’s little mysteries!

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About the Author

Debbie Martin has worked at Beeston Animal Health for over five years, having previously worked as a nurse in equine and small animal practice. Although generally involved with aspects of marketing these days and putting her psychology degree to good use, she still has a great depth of up to date knowledge in all creatures great and small. Debbie lives at home with her partner and two children and spends much of her spare time looking after her horses, dogs and cats or at the home farm with the cows, sheep and turkeys.

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