Kitten lying on blanket with eyes closed

Key takeaway

There are several reasons for cat purring, like communicating happiness and content, hunger, pain and healing, stress, or reinforcing the mother-kitten bond. Read through to learn more about cat purring and what it means below.

If you own a cat or have spent any time around them, chances are you’ve heard a cat purr. Cats may purr as you pet them or they may purr when dinner time rolls around. In fact, there are many possible reasons why a cat may be purring.

Purring is one of the most mysterious types of animal vocalizations. Cats purr when they’re happy, hungry, stressed, or in pain. Since this vocalization is associated with such a wide range of different emotions and behaviors, we also must take contextual clues into account when trying to decipher the meaning of a cat’s purring.

To learn more about how and why cats purr, continue reading this article from start to finish. You can also use the links below to skip to a specific section.

How Do Cats Purr?

Purring is an extremely important behavior for cats, evidenced by the fact that kittens learn how to purr just a few days after being born. So how do cats purr? The answer can be found in the relationship between a cat’s brain, laryngeal muscles, and vocal cords.

Studies have shown that a cat’s purr begins with a signal from a neural oscillator in the brain. This neural oscillator tells the laryngeal muscles, which are the driving force behind a cat’s purr, to move. Since the laryngeal muscles are responsible for the production of sounds and the movements in the space between vocal cords, these muscles cause the vocal cords to separate and produce the sound we recognize as purring.1

Purring is unique because it occurs during the full respiratory cycle— in other words purring takes place while cats inhale and exhale. This is different from other cat vocalizations like meowing, which only occurs on the out-breath.

What Does Cat Purring Mean?

If you’re asking yourself, “What does cat purring mean?” you’re not alone. Researchers and pet owners alike have been trying to make sense of this question for a long time. There are many reasons a cat may purr. They may be feeling happy, hungry, stressed, or some other emotion.

Gray cat lying on window sill

Let’s go through more detail on the different potential meanings of a cat purring. Hopefully, this will help you better understand why your cat might be purring. If you think they might be purring because they’re in pain, you can help them get treatment; or, if they’re purring because you’re petting them, you can keep on giving them that much-desired comfort and attention. In any case, continue reading to learn more about what cat purring means.

Happiness

In many cases, a cat’s purring is a sign of happiness. For example, you may have noticed your cat purring while you pet or scratch him or her. Cats may also purr as they eat. In these cases, their purring may be a positive sign, indicating that they are content.

Context clues and body language can also alert you to whether your cat is purring out of happiness or not. If their ears are forward, their tail is erect, and they’re lying on their back or their back is arched while their fur is flat, this is typically the body language of a happy cat.2

Graphic listing characteristics of a happy cat

Hunger

If you’re a seasoned cat owner, you likely already know that it’s not unusual for cats to purr as dinner time approaches. Some cats will begin to purr around their regular dinner time in order to get food from their owner. Even young kittens exhibit purring as they suckle from their mother.3

If you’re breaking out the cat food around dinner time and your cat begins to purr, you can likely assume it’s out of hunger. You may even notice that some cats purr as they eat.

Pain and Healing

While cats will often purr when they’re happy, they may also purr when they’re in pain.

Graphic explaining connection between purring and healing

The fact that cats purr both when they’re happy and in pain can complicate the process of deciphering the meaning of their purring. This is why it’s always important to consider contextual clues when trying to figure out what your cat’s purring means. Look at their body language and, if possible, take other contextual factors into account. A cat’s purring may indicate pain if present with other signs, such as biting, excessive meowing, breathing changes, appetite changes, or energy level changes. If you spot any of these symptoms, consult your veterinarian.

Graphic listing reasons why cats purr

Stress

In addition to serving as a self-healing mechanism, purring may also be used as a self-soothing tool. If a cat is anxious, sick, or stressed, they may purr to soothe or comfort themselves.2 It’s similar to the kind of behavior we see when an infant sucks their thumb or an adult bites at their nails when feeling overwhelmed. In these cases, the behavior may serve as a coping mechanism to distract from any stress or anxiety they may be feeling at the moment.

Kitten-Mother Bond

Much like human infants, kittens are dependent immediately after they’re born and rely on their mother for everything. Kittens in particular are born blind and deaf, so they need a way to communicate their need for food and warmth to their mother. Purring is one way to get their mother’s attention.

Beyond signaling physical needs like food and warmth, purring can also be a way for kittens to let their mothers know that they’re nearby and healthy. This purring can help form a bond between a kitten and their mother that strengthens their relationship with one another.1

Happy cat receiving pets from owner

Final Notes: Why Cats Purr

When it comes to the meaning of cat purring, there’s no easy answer. Cats may purr for a wide range of reasons—and some of those reasons may contradict each other. While a cat may purr when they’re happy, they may also purr when they’re in pain; while a kitten may purr to bond with their mother, they may also purr to soothe themselves when stressed.

In order to properly identify the significance of a cat purring sound, you need to take contextual clues into account. Consider your cat’s body language and use the situation and environment as clues when trying to decipher what a cat’s purring means.

If you suspect your cat is purring out of distress, consider scheduling an appointment with a vet to identify any potential health issues. Using Dutch, you can quickly schedule an online consultation with a qualified vet, who can assess, diagnose, and treat your pet. Dutch is also the only company offering vet telemedicine for pets that will deliver medications straight to your door. So, whether you have an itchy cat or you’re trying to figure out why your cat’s eyes are watering, contact Dutch today to access high-quality veterinary care at your convenience.

References

  1. “Why and How Do Cats Purr?” The Library of Congress, 19 Nov. 2019, https://www.loc.gov/everyday-mysteries/item/why-and-how-do-cats-purr/

  2. “The Cat's Meow: Understanding Feline Language.” The Humane Society of the United States, https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/cats-meow

  3. McComb, Karen, et al. “The Cry Embedded within the Purr.” Current Biology, Cell Press, 14 July 2009, https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(09)01168-3

  4. Muggenthaler, Elizabeth von. “The Felid Purr: A Healing Mechanism?” The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, AIP Publishing, 29 Oct. 2001, https://asa.scitation.org/doi/10.1121/1.4777098