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Sleepy cat purring

The essentials

  • Cats don’t just purr when they’re happy — Purring generally indicates calmness and bliss, but cats also do it to communicate hunger, sickness, or stress.
  • Some wild cats do it, too — Cougars, bobcats, lynxes, and cheetahs are all purrers.
  • Purring has health benefits for cats and owners alike — It can lower blood pressure, slow labored breathing, and reduce stress for both cats and their parents.

Every cat owner has been there. You’re sitting next to your favorite fur ball on the couch, when all of a sudden, you feel a soft vibration accompanied by a low, continuous murmur. You slowly turn to your cat, careful not to disrupt the soothing sound of their adorable purr. “All is right in the world,” you may be thinking to yourself, and your cat may be thinking the same.

Most people see a cat’s purr as a positive behavior linked to calmness, bliss, and affection. Generally speaking, this is accurate. But what other factors might be causing your cat to play the part of a massage pillow? As it turns out, there are various reasons why cats purr.

Do all cats purr?

Though the idea of a cute purr often conjures images of a tiny domestic cat nuzzling up on their human’s lap,  some species of wild cats purr as well. While big cats like tigers, leopards, and lions can roar but not purr, smaller wild cats such as bobcats, lynxes, cheetahs, and cougars can purr and meow, but not roar.

These differences come down to a cat’s hyoid, the bones in their throat that support the larynx and vocal cords. In smaller cats, the hyoid is more rigid than it is in larger cats, resulting in a low reverberating sound when they try to vocalize as opposed to the loud, menacing roars that bigger cats are known for. One thing that rings true for all cats is that these sounds are methods of communication. So what exactly are our loveable house cats  trying to say?

6 reasons why cats purr

More often than not, a cat’s purr can be interpreted as positive. However, there are multiple reasons your kitty may be purring, and some are less clear than others. Here are the possible meanings behind this behavior:

Your cat is content

Perhaps the most typical interpretation of a cat’s purr is that it’s a sign of affection and calmness. Simply put, they are in a state of complete bliss. This could be because they are engaging with a person, toy, or fellow pet they love. It could also indicate they are comfortable on their cozy cat bed or sprawling out in the sun. Not only is this a common reasoning for purring, but it’s perfectly normal and healthy for the cat.

Your cat wants you closer to them

And the award for ‘Sweetest Reason Your Cat May Be Purring’ goes to…they want to be closer to you! This method of communication is ingrained in cats from the moment they’re born. Since kittens are born blind and deaf, mother cats rely on purring to draw them in for feeding and protection. As adults, cats use this learned behavior to lure their favorite humans towards them for love, attention, and gentle petting.

Your cat is hungry

Like other pets (and humans for that matter), cats like to make it known when they want food. In this instance, purring is less of a natural reflex and more of an intentional behavior. A hunger-induced purr may be accompanied by your cat pawing at you for dramatic effect. Owners should consult their vet to ensure their fur baby’s dietary needs are being met, and have a routine schedule for feeding. Also keep an eye on their water bowl or invest in a water fountain to keep them hydrated.

Your cat is stressed

You’ve probably heard the expression “a purring cat is a happy cat.” But unfortunately, purring can also be indicative of fear, anxiety, and distress. Because cats reflexively purr when they are content, they will deliberately purr when they’re stressed out in an effort to self-soothe and return to their contented state. It’s the same way that you may force yourself to take deep breaths or meditate when you’re experiencing anxiety. They are attempting to compose themselves by mimicking a behavior they do when they are calm.

Owners should be on the lookout for other behavioral cues accompanying their purr, such as getting up and down a lot, relieving themselves outside of their litter box, rapid breathing, and excessive grooming. They may also exhibit physical symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, and lethargy, all of which warrant a trip to the vet. People with cats that experience routine anxiety may want to consider medication.

Your cat is healing

The same way cats purr to self-soothe, they also do it to self-heal. Purring has many health benefits for our whiskered friends, including mending injuries and lowering blood pressure. Cats purr in low-frequency vibrations that can reduce swelling in wounds and repair tendons. While our feline friends practice wonderful self-care, owners should still take their cat to the vet if they suspect they’re purring out of pain.

Your cat is communicating with another cat

Not all purrs concern us. In some cases, cats purr to other cats in order to communicate with them. This could be their friendly way of saying“hello” and that they are not a threat, as opposed to warning signs like approaching with their ears flattened and hackles raised. Cats may even purr while cuddling with one another to convey the same love and warmth they convey to their two-legged friends.

Interpreting your cat’s purrs

With all these different reasons for purring, it can be difficult to determine which one applies to your pet. Rather than just focusing on the purr, owners hoping to understand the root cause of their respective cat’s behavior will need to pay attention to their little one’s whole body language. Cats are excellent communicators who express their needs through sounds, posture, and behavior. For instance, purring paired with the act of kneading almost always signals contentment. On the other hand, a cat purring while licking their lips or excessively self-grooming is likely indicating that they are stressed or anxious.

Owners can also pay attention to the sound of the purr itself. If a cat is purring to communicate a need, they will do what researchers refer to as a “solicitation purr,” in which the purr has more of a whiny meow or chirp mixed in. This distinct purr intentionally has a different frequency than the everyday purr they do when they’re content and relaxed.

Health benefits of purring

For the most part, owners can rest assured that purring is a completely normal and necessary function of a cat’s life. In fact, in addition to being a valuable communication tool, scientists have discovered many health benefits that come with this important feline behavior…for your cat AND you.

  • Stress reduction — We talked about how cats purr as a way of self-soothing in stressful situations, but did you know it can alleviate your stress as well? While purring, cats release endorphins that can lower stress hormones in nearby humans.
  • Improved breathing — Cats purr to regulate their breathing when they’re experiencing shortness of breath. The vibrations provide a steady metronome-like pace for humans to mimic as they themselves breathe, thus relieving the symptoms of respiratory disorders.
  • Lower blood pressureOne research study found that cat purrs can lower blood pressure in both cats and their owners, which in turn lowers the risk of heart disease.
  • Bone healing — Cats purr at a frequency of 20-140 hertz, which is similar to the frequency used to build and strengthen human muscles.
  • Mental health — The sound of a purr is linked to feelings of companionship. This can offset loneliness and other feelings of isolation, particularly for people living alone.

While cats are often viewed as mysterious creatures, they’re actually quite communicative through their purrs and other body language. The more you understand not only what your cat is trying to tell you but how they are trying to tell you, the stronger your bond will be with them. Before you know it, that adorable vibration you feel whenever your feline friend is near will have a much deeper meaning.

Frequently asked questions

At what age do cats start purring?

All cats are born blind and deaf, and must immediately rely on purring to communicate with their mom. It is essentially the first thing they learn to do!

Do cats only purr when they are happy?

While contentment is the most common reason for purring, cats also engage in this behavior to signal their hunger and self-treat mental and physical health symptoms.

Do wild cats purr?

Most big cats like lions and tigers do not purr, but smaller cats in the wild like bobcats, lynxes, and cougars do.

How does purring affect humans?

Scientists have found that cat purrs can benefit owners in addition to cats. Some ways that purring aids humans is by lowering their blood pressure, helping them breathe better, and reducing their stress.