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Four reasons why cats purr

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Purring is a common vocalisation made by kittens and cats, yet the meaning and motivation behind a cat’s purr is a lot more complex than it seems. Discovering the meaning behind your cat’s vocalisations can help you communicate better and deepen your bond.
Orange cat on sofa with a woman's hand gently stroking

Cats are surprisingly vocal animals, communicating with meows, trills, hisses, growls, yelps and shrieks. But perhaps the most enchanting and mysterious noise they make is the purr. There’s something relaxing – almost hypnotic – about this unique and frankly odd animal vocalisation. But what does it mean?

Why cats purr

A cat’s purr can have a number of different meanings. Here are four reasons why your cat may be purring.

1. Cats purr because they are content

Perhaps most obviously when curled up on a human’s lap, cats may purr because they’re warm, cosy and content.

2. Cats purr to calm themselves

While it’s true that cats purr during moments of extreme relaxation, animal experts believe that cats also purr at times of great stress or pain, such as during a visit to the vet and even when giving birth.

Scientists now believe that cats purr to calm themselves down, meaning they’re just as likely to do it in a stressful or painful situation as they are when curled up in someone’s lap. The low-frequency vibrations of purring help them ease their breathing and soothe tension.

3. Purring helps with healing

Purrs do more than simply calming down your cat – scientists also believe these vibrations can help heal injuries, repair and build muscles, even act as a painkiller which might explain why injured or sick cats choose to expend valuable energy on purring. It might also explain why cats have a tendency to recover more quickly than dogs from surgery and suffer fewer complications.

4. ‘Solicitation purrs’ help your cat ensure their needs are met

Purring can also aid your cat in more direct ways. Scientists have identified a particular type of purring, known as the ‘solicitation purr’, that cats appear to use exclusively as a means of obtaining something from their owner – either affection or food.

The ‘solicitation purr’ is a cross between a meow and a purr, and is close in frequency to the sound of a crying baby – a noise we are naturally programmed to respond to.

A cat's purr could benefit humans

A cat's purr could have benefits for humans, too. A long-term study carried out by the University of Minnesota Stroke Centre found that cat owners were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease compared to non-cat-owners - and some people have suggested that exposure to purring might be part of the reason for this. 

What if my cat doesn’t purr?

Each cat purrs in a different way and at a different volume. Some cats purr in almost complete silence, and the only way to tell they are doing it is by touching their neck or throat to feel the vibration. That said, other cats don’t appear to purr at all, and, barring an injury to the vocal cords, scientists are still trying to understand why.

Feral cats are more likely to be non-purrers than domestic cats, leading to a theory that feral cat mothers discourage purring in their kittens to prevent them from attracting predators.

Scientists also note that feral cats are much less vocal than their domesticated counterparts, often only meowing and purring as kittens, and abandoning the habits during adulthood. This may be because domestic cats developed their vocal tendencies to better communicate with humans. A purring cat may solicit petting or treats, and a meowing cat may get dinner faster than a quieter companion.

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