Cats communicate with each other and with humans in many ways. Body language and meowing are an important part of their vocabulary, but so is purring! Purring is that wonderful low smooth rumble that cats can emit without opening their mouth or moving anything we can see, like a fancy sports car idling. Humans can’t purr, and neither can dogs – only non-roaring felines can make this remarkable harmonious sound. Every cat purring sounds a little different. They can even purr while they meow! How do they do it? And why do cats purr? Many people speculate how and why, and some even say it’s impossible to know for sure – the purring of cats is that mysterious! Read on to find out the meanings, theories, and science behind the purrrrrrrrrr.
How do cats make that wonderful purr sound? Wikipedia says, “One hypothesis, backed by electromyographic studies, is that cats produce the purring noise by using the vocal folds and/or the muscles of the larynx to alternately dilate and constrict the glottis rapidly, causing air vibrations during inhalation and exhalation.” (Listen to their audio clip of a cat purr.) The muscles work both during inhalation and exhalation, which creates the impression that cats can purr continuously.
So now that you know how purring works, when do cats purr and what does it mean?
- Happiness. Happiness is the most well-known purr cause. A happy cat will purr when they are being loved on, being loving, snuggling, eating, be brushed, and pretty much any time they are content.
- Self-soothing. I think of this as like when a nervous human smiles. Cats in shelters, or during a visit to the vet, seem to be purring to make themselves feel better. There’s also a theory that they are trying to communicate that they are not a threat, so actually trying to sooth the humans around them!
- Soothing humans. Many cat caretakers, myself included, have experienced a “nurse” cat who lies next to us or on us when we’re feeling poorly, and makes us feel better with the intensity of their healing purr frequency.
- During labor. Yes, many mom cats purr as they are giving birth! This may be because purring may cause the cat’s brain to release a chemical or hormone that reduces pain and stress.
- Self-healing. Again, to quote Wikipedia: “Scientists at the University of California, Davis hypothesised that a cat’s purr can be used as a healing mechanism to offset long periods of rest and sleep that would otherwise contribute to a loss of bone density. The vibrations and contractions of a purr work during both inhalation and exhalation show a consistent pattern and frequency around 25 Hz; these frequencies have been shown to improve bone density and promote healing in animal models and humans.”
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