Why Do Cats Purr? Is It Good Or Bad?

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A cat's purr can say so much as to how they're feeling. If you can identify the signs you can strengthen the bond with your feline friend. See how powerful purrs really are.
Cat looking at his owner

Cats are very complex animals. They have so many different traits and body language features that alert us to how they’re feeling inside. Cats aren’t able to speak to us, so we need to be able to read their body language to get a better understanding on what they are feeling internally. Purring is something that every cat owner will experience when they are taking care of a feline. Surprisingly, there is a deeper meaning when your cat is purring. Sometimes purring can be a good thing while other times it can be a sign that they are stressed out. With a little bit of knowledge behind the question, why do cats purr, it can help you become a better cat parent.

Purring actually takes place when the kitten is first born. I will go into this more in detail later on in the article, but it is actually a loving bond between mother and kitten.

I know when I first started taking care of our kitten Watson he would purr at everything. Little did I know that purring could be a good thing or it could also be a sign of anxiety and stress. I was an ignorant owner and just thought that purring meant good and that was it. After doing more research I am more aware of my cats purring and what he is trying to tell us.

How Do Cats Purr?

Before we do a deep dive into this topic I want to actually teach you about how cats actually purr. Knowing the process behind this action can help you to understand how your cat is feeling at that specific time.

According to Mother Nature Network, “A cat’s purr begins in its brain. A repetitive neural oscillator sends messages to the laryngeal muscles, causing them to twitch at a rate of 25 to 150 vibrations per second. This causes the vocal cords to separate when the cat inhales and exhales, producing a purr.”

This is a special wiring that most cats have. Purring is a special communication between the brain and the muscles of the voice box.

This neural oscillator will trigger, if the cat feels stressed or happy. The article does a perfect job at comparing this to smiling. People smile for a bunch of different reasons. I know that I smile when i’m happy but I also give off an awkward smile when i’m nervous or scared. The same thing works for cats when they’re purring.

A Kitten And Mothers Connection

Purring is actually developed very early on in the kitten’s life. Actually it starts as early as two days from being born. It is a very fascinating process that increases the bond between a mother and her babies.

When kittens are born they are actually born blind. It takes some time for their vision to develop and strengthen. Along with their lack of sight, kittens are also born deaf. They definitely have a rough time when they are young!

Cat Behavior Associates states that “Once kittens are born, the mother’s purr is crucial to their survival.” Kittens need to rely heavily on their mothers purr to survive long enough until their vision and hearing is fully developed. The kittens use the vibrations from their mother’s purrs to help them locate their family. It also helps them find their mother when it comes time for feeding. The mother’s purring acts almost like a beacon or sonar for the blind kittens.

When they finally reach their purring mother it is time to eat and also snuggle in for some warmth. The kittens also like to help their brothers and sisters out by purring to let them know it is dinner time.

Finally, when the kittens reach their mother it is time to feed. What they usually do to stimulate milk is almost like a kneading motion on their mothers underside. We notice that Watson does this a lot when he jumps up on us while we are wearing something soft. It is just a natural instinct that has stuck with him as he grew up. A lot of the traits that they use when they are a kitten is brought up with them as they grow older.

Why Do Cats Purr?

Cat taking a quick nap

There is no better feeling than having your furry friend jump on your lap, snuggle into a little ball, then start to purr really loud. This shows that your cat is comfortable and really relaxed with his present situation.

There are other times where purring can signal distress and anxiety in your cat. These are the purrs you need to be aware of and make the necessary changes to calm your feline friend down.

A purring cat or kitten can express several different emotional states. The one that we are most familiar with is the happy purr. There can be a variety of different reasons why your cat is purring, and I will highlight most of them in the sections below.

If you have any questions about this I would love to hear about it in the comments below. The right actions when your cat is purring can be crucial.

They Are Really Happy

This is probably going to be the easiest type of purr to identify. A good example of this is when your cat is on their back with their paws in the air snoring and purring away. It is safe to assume that your cat is in a very good headspace at the moment.

This also works if your cat is sleeping in your lap rolled up into a tight little ball. Cats enjoy being close to their owners and any chance they get to take a quick cat nap on your lap is heaven for them.

It is really easy to identify a happy purr because 99% of the time your cat will be sleeping in a very exposed position. Cats are very cautious creatures so sleeping in a very vulnerable position means they are in a calm state of mind.

They Are Hungry

Cats are very good at letting their humans know when they want something or are hungry. You will notice that not all noises coming from a cat sound the same. Each sound or purr technically means something different depending on the noise.

Trust me when I say this. Your cat will definitely let you know when they are hungry and want some food. They actually get a little demanding when it comes to something like this.

WebMD For Pets said, “British researchers studied the sounds that house cats make when they’re hungry and when food isn’t on their minds. The purrs don’t sound the same.” A hungry purr is a combination of meowing and purring at the same time. I like to call it the “solicitation purr.”

The article compares it to a baby crying or something very similar. The cat is smart enough to know that if I make a crying baby noise, my owner should get up from what they’re doing and come check on me. Cats are a lot smarter than we think they are.

It Helps Them Heal

Believe it or not, cats can actually use their purring to heal themselves when they are hurt or in pain. The purring is used as a soothing effect to make the cat feel better in a time of need.

I like to compare it to a child sucking his thumb. When you’re little and you need to soothe yourself, the easiest thing to do would be to suck your thumb. It keeps you occupied and not focused on your pain.

A couple research articles actually suggest that purring has a kind of healing element to it. That is why cats can heal so much faster from injury then dogs can. The low vibrations of the cats purrs can start the healing process and can also:

  • Heal broken bones and wounds
  • Build muscles and repair tendons
  • Slow down a staggered breathing
  • Lessen pain and swelling

I like to think of purring as a cats Tylenol or pain killer. There is actually a lot of research behind the healing properties of purring.

They Are Stressed About Something

This is going to be the hardest purr to identify because it can come at really random times. You could be sitting on the couch and your cat comes to your feet and just starts purring. Or they can decide to jump up on your bed and just start nervously purring.

The purrs are going to sound the same as happy purrs. It is up to the owner to identify why their furry friend is purring at this exact moment. Maybe something happened a couple minutes before they tried to find their owner. Maybe something scared them in the other room and they needed to be protected by their fearless human.

Stressed purring is like putting on sound blocking headphones when you’re in an uncomfortable situation.

I can give you a great example with Watson. It was the 4th of July and there were going to be some fireworks happening down the road. Watson was still little so I didn’t really know how he would react. The fireworks started and he ran to the bed and hid underneath it. I got down on the floor and I tried to ease him out from under the bed. When I finally got him out he was purring so loud and it confused me. He must have been purring to drown out the noise of the fireworks.

Another example of stressed out purring is when my cat goes to the vet. He always likes to purr when he is on the exam table or sitting in the waiting room. He gets so nervous because he likes to associate the vets office as a really bad place. So to ease his stress he purrs to calm himself down. It’s like taking deep breaths as a human when you’re anxious.

It Gives Them Some Exercise

Another surprising answer to, why do cats purr, is that it gives them a little bit of exercise. It is really hard to imagine that a soothing purr from a fluffy kitty is actually their way of exercising on the down low.

Scientific American states that, “the vibrations from purring may stimulate muscles and bones without the cat extending a lot of energy and effort.”

So as you’re snuggling up with your purring cat they could actually be in the middle of a full on workout. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind the extra company. I don’t think they would mind a little interruption for snuggling with a warm blanket.

When Does Purring Become A Problem?

Feline Infectious Peritonitis or FIP is one of the saddest diseases that a cat can have. It is also commonly referred to as the purring disease. According to Steve Dale, “FIP is an illness that can be fatal to cats and one of the features is that the cat will continue to purr up until the moment of death or last consciousness before death. The purring may also be more noticeable due to chronic airway congestion.”

This condition is considered fatal but in some very rare cases the cat survives. It’s so sad to see a cat with FIP because they are constantly purring to ease their pain. Unfortunately, the pain isn’t going to get any better due to this illness.

As I mentioned before, cats purr to ease their aches and pains. It kills me to see the cats constantly purring to ease a pain that is never going to get better. FIP is probably the most important thing you should look for if your cat is constantly purring 24 hours a day. This would need to be brought up with a vet for further treatment and care.

Purring Actually Helps Humans

Believe it or not, cats can actually help their humans by purring as well. Our furry friends are actually helping us stay healthy through the power of purring.

A cat’s purrs fluctuate between 20-140 Hz. This range has been shown to be medically therapeutic to anyone listening to it. Thankfully, the soothing sounds of your cat purring on your lap is actually helping you.

The purrs of your cat have been shown to lower stress and blood pressure. The website mom.me is mentioned saying, “studies also show that cat owners are about 40% less likely to have a heart attack than those without felines.” If that doesn’t convince you to get a cat I don’t know what will.

Purrs can also cut down on the symptoms of dyspnea. Dyspnea is the feeling that you can’t catch your breath or get enough air in your lungs. It is usually most commonly known as shortness of breath.

Your cat’s purring can have so many wonderful benefits for yourself as well as them. So the next time you’re hurting, just grab your cat and let them purr all over you.

Do Big Cats Purr Too?

Lion enjoying the sun

You would think that big cats like lions and tigers would also be able to purr out in the wild to ease their pains. They are all part of the same family but surprisingly, big cats don’t have the ability to purr out in the wild. Most of the big cats don’t actually have what it takes to purr. This is mainly a trait of the house cat.

The Wild Cat Sanctuary has this to say about purring, “In big cats- – lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars- – a length of tough cartilage runs up the hyoid bones to the skull. This feature prevents purring but also gives the larynx enough flexibility to produce a full- throated roar- – 114 decibels’ worth in the case of one lion tested. The sound can be loud enough to be near a human’s pain threshold.”

Conclusion

Now you will think twice when you hear a cat purring. You will be able to tell other people that a cat’s purr can have so many different meanings. It is up to the owner to be able to identify why their cat is meowing this specific way.

I would have to say that most of the time, a cat is purring because they are happy or stressed. If your cat is doing a stressed out purr you should give them some space and let them calm down a little. The anxiousness will eventually pass.

I would love to hear what you thought of this article! Did you know that a cat’s purr can have so many meanings? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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