Tips & Tricks: Why do cats purr?


Is a purring cat really a happy cat?

Unlike our domestic moggies, adult cats that live in the wild rarely purr at all. In fact, it is only kittens that purr to their mothers. Amazingly, through the process of domestication and human contact, cats retain this infantile trait to call to their owners – us. Cats, it seems, have a kind of language that they use exclusively with us and it turns out that there is actually more than one type of purr.

Every morning Dr Karen McComb from the University of Sussex was being rudely awakened by her cat Pepo and wondered why the purring she could hear was so difficult to ignore. This led Karen and her team to ask a group of volunteers to rate different purrs based on how urgent and pleasant they perceived them to be.

Unlike the purr that cats produce when curled up on your lap, the team discovered a distinct purr that incorporates a shrill frequency, similar to that of a baby’s cry. This embedded frequency in the ‘solicitation purr’ is produced when cats are seeking attention or food. Through evolution, we have developed a ‘sensory bias’ to higher pitched ‘baby-crying’ sounds and cats seem to have exploited this.

When the team played the recordings back to human volunteers, even those people with no experience of cats found the soliciting purrs more urgent and less pleasant. The scientists were also able to remove the cry acoustically and show that the purr lost its urgency.

More about this can be found on the following links (also the picture source):

Additionally some cats also purr when they are hurt and sick. Scientists are yet to determine if this is because the cat is trying to sooth himself/ herself or to alert their human companions to the situation and to be gentle with them.


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28 thoughts on “Tips & Tricks: Why do cats purr?

  1. colonialist says:

    A fascinating topic, but I would question some of the conclusions. I don’t think purring is ‘geared’ to humans. I think it follows normal patterns inherent in the amazingly wide range of communication signals which are used towards their own species. The greater occurrence with domestic cats is due to a greater exposure to being ‘nurtured’ than their feral counterparts experience. I think they may well become exasperated at the singular stupidity shown by humans in interpreting what they are ‘saying’.
    The purring when injured may well be a combination of self-hypnosis and of signalling the need for being ‘mothered’.
    Wild serval cats are known to be great purrers – and they do it particularly loudly.

    • Marc-André says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. And some interesting points raised there! I may have to do some further research in this and post a follow-up article on this at some point 😀

      I sometimes wish we could truly speak to our furry friends. Would make communication so much easier ^^

  2. Nissa Annakindt says:

    I’ve lived in the country for years and had barn cats who ranged from near-feral to housecat-friendly. I usually take kittens in the house to be socialized— sometimes with their moms if I can. Some kittens purr for me and some don’t. Often it depends on whether I kept their moms in the house with them until they were grown up. If I brought them in the house and weaned them, becoming their mommy-substitute, they’d purr, but if their mommy stayed in the house with them until they were six months or so, most wouldn’t purr even though many of them clearly preferred attention from me to attention from the mama.

  3. Jennifer L Thorpe says:

    Interesting. My black and white cat does this urgent purr outside my door in the mornings waiting for food. I feed her, and then go about my morning. She will keep doing it until I am settled with my coffee.

  4. InfiniteZip says:

    thanks for the follow, funny thing is while reading this particular post, my older getting senile cat proceeded to make her lately weird meowl (cross between a meow and howl) not sure why she keeps doing it, I think she sits in the bathroom sink waiting for you to turn on the water or something. wacky cat. one of three:) love your kittie besties:)

  5. pambrittain says:

    When my cat wanted to go outside, he simply said, “Out.” That’s the truth; even my neighbor heard it. But, when he wanted food, there was no purring involved. Lots of cat yelling, but no purring.

  6. Pingback: Tips & Tricks: Why do cats purr? | cartoon life

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