Ask a cat owner what she loves most about her precious moggy and she might mention the contented way her pet purrs when he’s being scratched, cuddled or snuggled. But the reasons why cats purr and the emotions behind it are still a bit of a mystery.
Most of us assume purring is a sign of contentment because we hear our cats doing it when we stroke or cuddle them. But some cats also purr when they’re scared, injured, nervous or hungry. Cats also purr when they are giving birth, leading some to believe that purring is a way that cats calm and comfort themselves. Kittens also purr, perhaps to communicate with their mothers.
Because many experts believe the function of purring is to self-soothe, you’ll notice cats purr when they are scared, injured or tired. Cats have been seen lying down beside another injured cat and purring.
What is perhaps even more surprising is that the purr helps their bones and muscles. In the same way that exercise promotes bone health in humans, the pressure of purring can strengthen a cat’s bones, and the vibration of the purr can promote tissue regeneration. In the wild, cats will purr while waiting to hunt – it’s a way they can keep their bones strong without having to get up and move around.
So, how do they make that purring sound? Cats don’t have any special muscles or bones to purr – when they purr their larynx and diaphragm muscles just move very quickly. As they breathe in and out, air passes these vibrating muscles, producing the sound we know as a purr.
So what should you do to understand your cat’s purr? Take note of what your cat was doing before he started purring. If you just arrived home, perhaps he wants attention or a cuddle. If he purrs a lot late in the afternoon, he probably wants dinner. If he has just come in from playing, perhaps he’s tired or has hurt himself.
Like a baby’s cry, a cat’s purr can mean many different things, and while we may never be able to fully understand what he’s trying to tell us when he purrs, we can learn something from the fascinating sounds our cat makes.