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Why do cats purr?

By Lea Maxwell

cute_kitten_playing_with_toy

There’s no sweeter sound to a cat person than that of a cat purring. It’s a lovely sound, no doubt, but there might be a scientific reason behind why. Purring provides a wide range of communication and even therapeutic benefit to cats. Scientists are starting to understand a bit more about what it means when a cat purrs and you might be surprised to know that not every purr means that a cat is happy

If you’ve ever tried to mimic that cheery sound back to your cat, you’ve probably wondered “how do cats purr”? That low rumble occurs as a result of the brain sending signals to the muscles in the voice box to vibrate (during inhalation and exhalation for continuous purring). The signal is autonomic, meaning your cat’s motor is running on autopilot.

Purring is a very distinct sound, isolated from the meows, chirps or other unique vocalizations that cats make. Interestingly, large cats can either roar or purr, but not both. So giant cats like cheetahs and cougars do purr, while lions and tigers cannot.

So, what does it mean when a cat purrs? Most people assume that cats purr when they’re content or feeling friendly, but there are many other things that can make a cat purr. If you’re trying to figure out what your cat is feeling take a look at the context.

Happiness

If you feel like your cat is happy when they’re purring, snuggled up in a sunny spot on the couch next to you, you’re probably right. Most cats purr when they’re feeling content, social and at ease. A purr can be a sign that all is right in their world.

Hunger

Cats often purr when they’re hungry. A hungry purr has a noticeably different sound from a happy purr, with a little chirp added to get your attention.  If your cat is purring and chirping, (while swatting you on the face early in the morning) they’re probably suggesting that you feed them.

Healing

Purring has been scientifically proven to aid cats in healing.  Mother cats and kittens purr to promote bonding, and it’s been shown to be a soothing mechanism, sort of like sucking a thumb. But, even more miraculously, studies show that the low-frequency vibrations may be a component in helping cats have a faster recovery and fewer complications after surgery because purring supports bone and wound recovery, lessens pain, swelling and eases breathing. This breakthrough has led to other therapeutic devices for human and pet relief and recovery, such as the use of vibrating boots to help astronauts maintain healthy bone density while in space. Some veterinary professionals even found improved healing and comfort in an injured cat if another purring cat is close by. That’s feline magic at its best.

What makes a cat purr can be as varied and nuanced as what makes a person laugh or what makes a dog wag its tail. It can be a sign of affection, comfort, nervousness or self-healing. It’s instinctual and a significant means of communication and self-help for cats, with more benefits than previously thought. You probably already knew that this lovely sound is one of the most precious sounds there is, but now you know a bit about the science of why purring is just so mesmerizing.

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