Critter Culture
The Many Reasons Why Cats Purr

The Many Reasons Why Cats Purr

Critter Culture Staff



The low toned rumbling of a purring cat is a familiar sound and a comforting part of a happy home for their owners. A curled up cat sat purring on their lap is how lots of cat owners relax. Many people assume a purring cat is a happy animal, but that is not always the case. There are several reasons a cat might purr. By watching what other behaviors a cat exhibits you can understand the cause of kitty's purring, and if there is a cause for any concern.


How Cats Purr

how do cats purr Sergeeva / Getty Images

Scientists used to think cat purring was due to vibrations in their hearts. And if you have felt a cat as it purrs you can see why they thought this, the purring rumble does seem to come from a cat’s chest. We now know purrs come from the cat’s larynx in the throat. Air vibrates every time the cat breathes in or out at 25 to 150 vibrations per second. This makes a purring sound.


Not every cat purrs

not all cats purrs ewastudio / Getty Images

As a general rule, small cats purr, but big cats roar. There are some larger wild cats like pumas and mountain lions that purr, but these cannot roar. It seems to be one or the other for cats. Although a few big cats which roar make purr-like noises, this is not true purring. None of the Patherinae family of cats; Tigers, Lions, Jaguars, Leopards, Snow Leopards, or Clouded Leopards really purr.


Purring for joy

what does purring mean NiseriN / Getty Images

Humans smile and dogs wag their tails to show happiness. Purring is how cats show they are happy and is one of the most recognizable signs of a happy cat. The low rasping vibration sound of a purr is often heard when a cat is tickled or petted. Owners who have more than one cat might hear them purring to each other, and cats who are bonded to other animals like dogs will purr with them too.


Purring to communicate

communicating purrs maximkabb / Getty Images

Cats start purring when they are just a few days old. The sound helps their mothers find them to keep them safe and also for feeding time. People have thought for decades that purring is a form of communication, but there have been few scientific studies in this area to say for certain. It’s likely that purring has communication purpose. There is little understanding of how and why cats purr to one another in the wild. However, we know that cats purr as they groom each other.


Purring for comfort

purr comfort Linda Raymond / Getty Images

Cats sometimes purr if they have been startled, or after a stressful event such as being chased. Some cats also purr loudly as they are investigating new environments or strange places. Scientists think that cats who purr to themselves in these situations are self-soothing to try and stay calm. A human equivalent might be a man who hums to himself if he’s nervous, or a child sucking their thumb when she is afraid.


Healing power of purrs

healing purrs cunfek / Getty Images

Purring evolved as a low-energy way for cats to keep their bones and body in good condition while they rest. The purr of a pet cat vibrates between 20 and 150 Hertz. Scientific research has shown that this frequency is medically therapeutic. Although the exact reason for this therapeutic effect is not fully understood, it is thought to be linked to cell repair and bone growth.

The healing power of purring evolved to help the cats themselves, but humans can share in this healing ability when a purring cat is sitting on them. Purring has been proven to lower blood pressure in their owners, and may even reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol too.


A purring cat might be unhappy

happy purr Osobystist / Getty Images

Although purring is most often a sign of contentment for cats, it can also express nervousness, fear, and stress. To tell is a cat is feeling negative emotions; you have to observe its body language too. Cats may meow to humans, but most of their language is visual and smell-based. If a cat has wide eyes with big pupils or their ears are flattened, then they are unhappy and might be purring to comfort themselves. Thankfully, a purr is more often a sign of happiness.


Loudest purr on record

loud purrs disqis / Getty Images

Some cat purrs are so quiet that you have to be close to the animal to hear it, while others are surprisingly loud. The loudest purr on record by a domestic cat was measured at 67.8 decibels, the same volume as a vacuum cleaner. This loud purr was achieved on 2 April 2015 by Merlin, who belongs to Tracy Westwood of the UK.


Some breeds purr more than others

breeds that purr ahloch / Getty Images

The Tonkinese is a breed that likes to fetch, play outdoors and enjoy life. They are also known for being loud. This is a cat that likes for people to notice it, so it does what it can to talk above the crowd. It also has a very powerful purr that surprises people new to the breed. While you might think a larger domestic cat will also purr louder, that isn’t the case. In fact, the Maine Coon which is one of the largest domestic cat breeds has a very quiet purr.


Feed me

purr eclipse_images / Getty Images

When a cat is weaving between your feet then looking up at you and glancing towards their empty food bowl, that means “feed me!” Some cats also purr loudly when they are asking for food. Loud purring is be used by many cats to wake up their human and to get breakfast. Many owners will feed the cat before themselves, which shows how effective a purr can be.


Purring as a location signal

cat by owner

Newborn kittens are not just tiny bundles of joy; they're also born blind and deaf. In these early days, a mother cat's purr acts as a beacon in the darkness, guiding her babies to safety and sustenance. This purring is a mix of comfort and survival, a gentle rumble that says, "Follow my voice, little ones." It's an early bond, a signal that resonates with warmth and the promise of a nurturing touch, ensuring that no kitten feels alone in their new, vast world.


Purring as a form of self-medication

cat in between blankets

A cat's purr resonates with a secret power, one that transcends mere communication. Within those gentle vibrations lies a cat's innate ability to heal, to soothe its aches and pains. Scientists suggest these vibrations can stimulate bone growth and repair tissues, making purring a sort of built-in healing mechanism. It's a feline's way of licking its wounds, not with tongue but with sound. So, when your cat settles down for a purr-filled nap, it might be doing more than just resting — it could be mending itself from the inside out.


Purring in response to being pet or tickled

cat being cuddled

There's a special kind of music to a cat's purr when it's being petted. It's a sound that fills the room with an air of contentment, a clear sign of a cat's pleasure. As you stroke your cat and find that special spot that elicits the loudest purrs, you're engaging in a profound exchange of trust and affection. This purring is a cat's way of saying, "You're doing everything right," a vocal appreciation for the love and attention it's receiving from its favorite human.


Purring as a sign of hunger

cat being fed

When it's close to mealtime, a cat's purr can turn into a compelling appeal for food. This isn't just any purr — it's a nuanced, persistent rumble that's hard to ignore. It's as if your cat is saying, "Notice me, feed me, care for me." This purr is designed to be irresistible, often mingled with an insistent meow, a feline tactic evolved to tap into the human heart (and perhaps, the guilt) to prompt a swift response to fill the food bowl.


Purring as a greeting to other cats

two cats

In the feline world, purring serves as a social overture. When cats encounter each other, a soft purr can be the equivalent of a friendly nod, signaling that they come in peace. It's a sound that maintains social bonds and eases tensions, a way for cats to express a desire for a peaceful coexistence. This purring is a cat's way of navigating its social landscape, of saying, "Let's be friends," or "I acknowledge you," creating harmony in a world where communication is more often felt than heard.



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