Why Do Cats Purr?

Is it a display of contentment or a means of communication? Or both?

striped kitty purrs against pale blue background

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

It's easy to assume that cats purr because they're happy. After all, when your kitty contentedly curls up in your lap for some well-deserved scratches and rubs, she's obviously one happy feline.

However, cats also purr when they’re frightened or feel threatened, such as during a visit to the vet. This article details everything cat owners need to know about when, why, and how cats purr.

Where the Purr Comes From

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.

But not all cats can purr. Domestic cats, some wild cats, and their relatives—civets, genets and mongooses—purr, as do hyenas, raccoons, and guinea pigs. However, cats that purr can’t roar, and cats that roar can’t purr because the structures surrounding roaring cats’ larynxes aren’t stiff enough to allow purring.

Roaring cats evolved this way for good reason. These cats move around a lot to catch prey, so they developed their roar to protect their prides and their territory. Purring cats, on the other hand, are smaller and more likely to be loners that don’t have to compete with each other for prey. They use scent to mark territory and don’t need a far-reaching way to communicate.

Purring to Communicate

woman's arm pets cat while sitting on bed of blankets

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Your cat may also purr to communicate with you. According to researchers at the University of Sussex, domestic cats can hide a distressed cry within their purrs, appealing to human's nurturing instincts.

The team examined the sound spectrum of 10 cats’ purrs and found an unusual peak in the 220- to 520-hertz frequency range embedded in the lower frequencies of the usual purr. Babies' cries have a similar frequency range at 300 to 600 hertz.

Karen McComb, who headed the study, said cats may be exploiting "innate tendencies in humans to respond to cry-like sounds in the context of nurturing offspring."

Why would your feline do this? "Cats apparently learn to do this to get people to feed them sooner," said veterinarian Benjamin L. Hart.

Purring for Health

striped kitty sits cozy in blue felt globe house

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Cats’ purrs are more than simply a way to communicate though. Scientists like Elizabeth von Muggenthaler, a bioacoustics researcher, believe that cats also purr to heal themselves.

She says that frequencies between 24-140 vibrations per minute are therapeutic for bone growth, pain relief and wound healing. She recorded a variety of cat purrs, including those of domestic cats, ocelots, cheetahs and pumas, and discovered that the animals’ purrs all fit into the range for bone regeneration.

In addition to repairing bones, there's also evidence that the series of vibrations caused by purring can repair muscles and tendons, ease breathing, and reduce pain and swelling.

Purring isn’t just good for cats though—it’s also healthy for cat owners. Studies show that cats do a better job of relieving stress and lowering blood pressure than other pets. In fact, a study at the University of Minnesota Stroke Center found that cat owners were significantly less likely to suffer from myocardial infarctions and strokes than non-cat owners—and purring might play a role in that.

women in foreground scratches kitty cheek on bookshelf

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

"Purring is an auditory stimulus that people attribute to peacefulness and calmness," Dr. Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction, told WebMD. "That gives us positive reinforcement for what we’re doing and can contribute to the whole relaxation effect when we interact with our cats."

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What's the largest cat species that can purr?

    Cats that can roar can't purr and vice versa. The largest "big cat" that can still meow and purr is the cougar.

  • Do cats purr when they're in pain?

    Cats do sometimes purr when they're in pain. It's not only a coping mechanism but also a healing method. The vibration is physically rejuvenating and helps with everything from swelling to muscle repair.

  • Do any other animals besides cats purr?

    Cats aren't the only ones that purr. Guinea pigs, raccoons, mongooses, hyenas, foxes, badgers, and rabbits do, too, among other animals.

Why This Matters to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support their wellbeing.

We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.