What Makes Cats Purr

"What makes cats purr is not entirely known. Recent research shows that the a cat will purr differently when wanting to be fed as a way of "training" the pet owner. Probable reasons a cat purr's is to communicate with kittens, signal that a cat is content, a language between cats when another friendly cat approaches, and when danger exists. The sound itself is made when the vocal cords come together and then separate."

What makes cats purr is a bit of a mystery. It is believed that the original function of purring is for mother cat to signal kittens to nurse. Kittens are born deaf and blind, but they can feel their mothers purring. The purring serves as a “homing device,” allowing kittens to find their mother, and encourages them to nurse.

Kittens learn to purr when they are just a few days old. Their purring lets their mother know that they are getting enough milk and that all is well. Kittens can’t meow and nurse at the same time, but they can purr while nursing. Mother cats will often purr back, reassuring their kittens.

Adult cats will continue to purr when they are content. They will signal that all is well by purring when stroked, for example. They may purr in anticipation of being stroked or being fed.

Purring also serves as a form of communication between adult cats. They may purr when playing with other cats or when approached by other cats, signaling that they are friendly.

New research featured in Current Biology magazine by Dr Karen McComb, a cat owner and reader in behavioral ecology at Sussex University in the UK demonostrated that cats who live in single person households "manipulate" their owner by masking what sounds like a human baby cry within the purr. This instructs the human companion that his or her cat wants to be fed.

While we think of cats purring when they are happy and relaxed, cats also purr when under stress, frightened, sick, or in pain. Female cats often purr when in labor. Cats have been known to purr while dying. It is believed that they may do so in an attempt to calm themselves.

When you take your cat to the veterinarian, she may purr so loudly that the vet has trouble hearing her heart and lungs. For some reason, cats often stop purring when they hear the sound of running water. Your vet may turn on the faucet in the exam room in an attempt to get your cat to stop purring so he can examine her better.

Cats may also purr to help heal themselves. The vibrations of their purring may actually help heal broken bones and other injuries. The vibrations may help to clear respiratory passages. In addition, the vibrations may serve to reduce pain.

Researchers are still learning about what makes cats purr. It’s a difficult subject to study because there are very few cats that do not purr, except those with severe injuries or disabilities, making them poor subjects for a study. However, it is clear that purring serves multiple purposes and is a necessary activity for cats.

How Cats Purr

The purr a cat makes is part of the inhaling and exhaling of natural breathing (Meow sounds happen only during the exhale). It is caused by the opening and closing of the space between your cat's vocal cords (called the glottis). The laryngeal muscles cause the opening and closing action. This is all controlled by the brain by what is called the neural oscillator.


The Felid Purr: A Bio-Mechanical Healing Mechanism
Elizabeth von Muggenthaler

Library of Congress

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine


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