Purring: What Your Cat Is Trying to Tell You


It may feel like a low rumbling; a kind of relaxing, idling motor sound. The purr is the cat’s natural sound and it is music to every cat owner’s ears. When a cat purrs, she is clearly relaxed and happy. Purring is often accompanied by an expression of pleasure and contentment. It is also accompanied by a relaxed body posture. Cats never purr when they are tense or anxious. A cats’ purr is a sign that he is comfortable with his surroundings and feels that all is well with the world. Many pet owners like to stroke their cats until they hear this telltale signal that their pet is happy with them.

What is a Purr and How does it work?


The mechanics of a purr occur when a cat inhales and exhales at the same time. The laryngeal muscles in the throat open and close the area between the vocal cords and creates the purr. However, the purring sound is also controlled by the neural oscillator in a cat’s brain. If there is some kind of interference or problem with the cat’s brain, purring may not occur. Also, damage to the muscles in the throat can impair a cat’s ability to purr.


 Where did it originate?


The origins of the cats purr starts with birth. All mothers need to communicate with their young to protect them. But, mother cats have the additional obstacle that their young are born blind.  They may also have difficulty locating their mother’s nipple. Often they have trouble distinguishing the fur of a littermate from that of their mother. Purring becomes the cat’s primary form of communication. This is because they are unable to see and their sounds are still faint not long after birth. When the mother leaves the litter to hunt, the kittens have no way of knowing when she’s coming back. The mother’s purr communicates to the kittens that she is back to care for them.


Why does my cat knead and stretch its claws when purring?

cat kneading

Purring is often combined with what’s called a kneading gesture. This occurs when cats move their paws back and forth on a surface or on the ground. Sometimes they look as if they are flexing their claws. They are actually reenacting the movement they made as nursing kittens. This kneading helped milk flow to the nipple they were drinking from. Even if the cat is 12 years old, he or she will still make this kneading gesture when feeling as content as a kitten. Both  purring and kneading recall their lives as kittens.


Does my cat only purr when it’s with me?


It’s interesting that purring is always directed toward another cat or a person. Cat’s don’t seem to purr when they think they are alone. If you have noticed that your cat purrs when sitting alone, it is actually in response to someone in the room. This may happen even if the cat is not sitting close by. Purring is always a sign of communication.  But it is possible that a cat can feel great and still not purr.


 How much purring should cat’s be doing?


It is unusual to find a cat that doesn’t purr frequently.  It’s almost impossible to find a cat that never purrs. The exception would be those with brain damage or throat problems.  Don’t assume that if your cat doesn’t purr every time you pet it, that he or she is somehow displeased with you. Cats who are unhappy with their owners don’t usually make them guess. They show their displeasure by pricking their ears back and ducking away or even leaving the room. Just as some people are content but don’t laugh and smile very often, some happy cats are not that into purring.


 How can I get my cat to purr more?


Cats purr most often when they are content. They never purr when they are anxious, hungry, or upset.  Cats may seem volatile because, unlike dogs, they are both predatory animals and prey. When they are pursued or feel nervous, they are less likely to sit in a relaxed position and purr. You can usually get your cat into a nice purring session after a meal. Allow your cat to sit where he or she wants to and allow them to invite you to pet them with a bit of head bunting. Stroke the cats’ head and pay special attention to the scent glands underneath the ears.  Once the cat relaxes, use long petting motions from its head to the tip of its tail. If the cat leans back and seems to indicate that it wants its stomach rubbed, be careful. Cat’s feel very vulnerable in that position.  Concentrate on the cats’ sides and head instead. If you hear the cat purring,  your pet is telling you that it enjoys being touched. It feels genuinely content and comfortable with you.


Is my cat content?


Some cat lovers enjoy making their cats purr often and see purring as a sign of satisfaction. If your cat has a warm bed, a comfortable home and does not feel threatened, it is likely to purr fairly easily. Purring is a regression to kittenhood that reminds the cat of nursing and being close to its mother.  That is one reason why purring is a good sign that your cat feels truly at home. Don’t feel discouraged if your cat does not purr often. Just make sure that it has plenty of clean food and water and feels at ease in your house. If your cat seems generally happy, relaxed, and contented don’t worry that it is not a big purrer.

If you want to read more about cat behavior read our article “When Scratching Gets Out of Control: How To Stop It.”

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