Why Do Cats Purr? Cat Purrs Don’t Always Mean Your Kitty is Happy

Why do cats purr? Let's look at how cats purr and find out why cat purring doesn't always mean a cat is content — it could signal something serious.

A happy gray cat sleeping.
A happy gray cat sleeping. Photography ©infinityyy | Thinkstock.

Cats are evolutionary masterpieces of design. They have evolved in such a way that many of their characteristics, including behaviors, are multifunctional — helping to increase the odds of survival. Cat scratching marks territories, it communicates conflicted feelings and it maintains nail health. Cat whiskers feel wind directions, broadcast moods and help cats navigate. But what about cat purring? Why do cats purr and what does it mean when a cat purrs? Let’s find out.

First, how do cats purr?

Two happy cats cuddle together.
Before we discuss why cats purr, let’s look at how cats purr. Photography ©kozorog | Thinkstock.

Before we answer, “Why do cats purr?” let’s talk about how cats purr. There are a few theories about how cats purr. The one that stands up the strongest states that cat purrs are produced through a combination of the laryngeal and diaphragmatic muscles along with a neural oscillator. This theory makes sense, because when cats suffer from laryngeal paralysis, they cannot purr. A second theory claims that the small hyoid bone is responsible for cat purrs. The hyoid bone is located between the skull and the larynx. Another theory states that purrs initiate from the central nervous system.

So, why do cats purr? Let’s look at some reasons: 

1. Why do cats purr? Newborn kittens and their moms purr to stay safe

Purring is vital for the survival of newborn kittens. The little ones are welcomed into the world by the soft vibrations of their mom’s purr. They are born deaf and blind, but they do feel vibrations. These sweet vibrations are perfect homing devices, guiding newborns to the protective warmth of mom’s body and to their first meals.

Kittens start communicating back to mom and their siblings through purrs. They start purring when they are two days old. When kittens nurse, they cannot meow, so they show their contentment by purring. Mom purrs back comfort and safety.

There is another way primal purring ups the odds for survival. Cat purring helps keep neonates safe from predators. Hungry predators are more likely to detect cries and other vocalizations than the vibrations of purrs.

Cat moms purr when they give birth. In addition to benefitting kittens, purring helps the mothers in a number of ways. The new moms are vulnerable and cannot defend themselves when they are giving birth. Painful cries attract danger. Instead of crying, they purr. Purring releases endorphins, reducing pain while simultaneously reassuring the newborns without luring unwanted visitors.

2. Cats purr when they want attention

Another answer to, “Why do cats purr?” Cat parents are familiar with the relaxing purrs of cats as they cuddle and stroke them. These little purr machines exude contentment, with the added benefit of uplifting the moods of the people who adore them while lowering their blood pressure.

Many kitties quickly figure out another basic benefit of purring — soliciting food and attention from their favorite people. Since most cat-parents lavish attention on their cats when they purr, cats often purr when they want affection and treats.

3. Cats purr when they are stressed, in pain or sick because cat purrs have healing powers

Not all answers to, “Why do cats purr?” are as positive or obvious. Cats purr when they are stressed, in pain or severely ill. Often, cats at the end of life will purr. Cats enter life and leave life on a purr.

What makes a purr a purr has tickled the curiosity of the scientific community for years. Studies find that purrs oscillate at a low frequency of 25 to 100 HZ. These frequencies promote bone healing and ease muscle pain. Clinical trials of people receiving ultrasound treatments have proven that low-frequency/intensity ultrasound accelerates healing in fractures. Purrs reassure and soothe, they promote healing and reduce pain.

There are also reports that cats heal faster than other animals that do not purr, and that purring releases endorphins. Endorphins reduce pain while healing takes place. Purring is the feline equivalent of expensive ultrasound treatments, without medical bills.

4. Cats purr for some low-key exercise

Another surprising answer to the question, “Why do cats purr?” Cat purring is actually a form of kitty exercise!

It is hard to imagine that relaxed, purring cats are in the midst of low-intensity exercise sessions. Felines are experts at conserving their energy through naps and lounging. According to Dr. Leslie Lyons, world-renowned genetics researcher and professor at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, the vibrations from purring may stimulate muscles and bones without the cat extending a lot of energy and effort.

Something for you to think about the next time you cuddle with your little purr-machine. Looks are deceiving — in reality, she might be heavily engaged in calisthenics.

And FYI: Cats do not have the monopoly on purring

Although our domestic cats are not the only animals who purr, their purrs are unique because they are the only ones who purr while they inhale and exhale. Not all members of the Felidae family technically purr, though. Lions, leopards and tigers roar, but they do not purr. Cheetahs and cougars are examples of big cats who purr.

Many other animals purr as well. The mechanisms that produce the purr vary between species, as do the meanings of their purrs. Gorillas, raccoons, rabbits, ring tailed lemurs, tapirs, elephants and hyenas are examples of other animals who purr.

The bottom line on, “Why do cats purr?”

Cat purrs are complex and powerful. They comfort cats and their people. Their vibrations heal, produce pain-relieving endorphins and ensure the survival of newborn kittens.

Thumbnail:  Photography ©infinityyy | Thinkstock. 

This piece was originally published in 2015.

About the author

For more articles and feline facts, follow Marilyn on Facebook!

Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses force free methods that include environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other force-free methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.

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33 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Purr? Cat Purrs Don’t Always Mean Your Kitty is Happy”

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  10. My Trish has always purred ever since she came here as an abandoned 7 month old kitten;I touch her she purrs I speak to her she purrs;I ADORE her and she knows it

  11. Pingback: Why Do Cats Purr? Cat Purrs Don’t Always Mean Your Kitty is Happy

  12. Has anyone ever had a cat purr with its mouth open / semi-open? Our Callie purrs with her mouth slightly to very open, depending on how happy she is. It is something I have never seen before. It also makes the purring louder.

  13. Hello and thank you for providing a comment section for important questions, I have one regarding a cat’s eye color. How come there are less eye color options for cats than there are for humans? For example, humans can have red or pink eyes due to albinism.

    1. Hi Sarah,
      Please find more articles on cat eyes and cat eye colors here:

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  17. I have a rescue tortie/piebald who was born with splayed hind legs due to a glitch in her brain. She is not in any pain and thinks she is quite normal. However, because of cartilage deterioration in her oesophogeal area, she cannot purr. instead, when happy she squeaks, and makes a whistling, whiffling cosy sound in her throat. It is so endearing! But she is thereby denied the benefits of the self-soothing action of the purr. Is she missing out?

  18. I have a black male kitten around 4-5 months that I’m looking for a home as soon as possible. I was wanting to see if you would be willing to take him & find him a good home.

  19. after touring the exotic feline rescue center in centerpoint, indiana, we learned that lions roar and tigers purr. if a big cat roars, they can’t purr and vice versa. interesting fact.

  20. Why does my 3 year old male Kitty bite the back of the neck of my 5 year old female Kitty? They have been neutered and spayed since about 3-4 months. He is also constantly licking her and sometimes me. He also bites me sometimes but rarely does it hurt. Kacey bites Kieran hard enough that she cries out seemingly in pain. I yell at him to stop. Which he usually does right away and runs away. He knows I don’t want him to do it. But is it a control thing or what? How can I get him to stop? Don’t want my other Kitty to fear pain is constantly a possibility. Thank you! =^..^=

    1. Hi Elisha, This article might have some good advice: https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/stop-cats-fighting. We also suggest contacting a vet and behaviorist. Best of luck!

  21. My 13 year old Jebediah( Jeb), loves fish. As he has aged, his breath is really “funky.” Jeb is very affectionate and always is on my lap, my head, my face, etc. what can I give him to improve MY

  22. How long do you stay away? I have two cats and we travel often. One of them hates a car ride. We leave our cats home alone for a week at time with plenty of dry food, water, and litter-robot. Little-robot is a lifesaver. It is worth every penny.

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  24. I have the world’s best cat, but he seldom purrs. Sometimes I can feel him purr when I can’t hear it. He seems content and languishes in all the attention he gets. He’s extraordinarily handsome. Is something physically wrong with him?

  25. Since moving to NC from MD, I make trips back to MD for visits with family & friends. My 5 yr old kitty – KitKit – is not to fond of these trips. Have found she does much better if I feed her before leaving. KitKit then settles in my lap for the 7 hr ride to MD. Getting KitKit into my Jeep is very trying for both of us. KitKit is very much aware of what suitcases mean, so she hides as the time comes closer to leaving. Hiding under beds, on top of the cabinets in the kitchen & anything to get out of the trip. This last trip, after looking for her all over the house & under beds, I found KitKit in her bed. She was meowing, not loud but it sounded like she was in a great deal of distress. I pick her up & carry her like a baby, down the stairs & into the Jeep. KitKit hides when it’s time to return home. What can I do to make this easier for both of us? Suggestions would be helpful. Thank you

    1. How long do you stay away? I have two cats and we travel often. One of them hates a car ride. We leave our cats home alone for a week at time with plenty of dry food, water, and litter-robot. Little-robot is a lifesaver. It is worth every penny.

    2. You can try some flower essences you put it in their food to help calm her down prior to the trip back buy a small crate/cage large enough to hold her comfortably and a small litter pan and comfy blanket. Cover the cage with another blanket to make a cave for her. You can put her in the cage prior to leaving you can even leave it set up in your house so she can sleep in it at home cats like places they can hid and feel safe. Cats do not do will with change all the time. So we have to make life as good as we can for them. Good luck.

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