The Surprising Reasons Why Cats Purr: Manipulation, Healing, and More

Most cat owners associate their cat’s purring with contentment and feeling good—it’s the cat’s way of telling them they’re happy. But there’s more to your cat’s purring than you may think. Purring in cats can be both voluntary and instinctive, and it’s true that they use purring as a form of self-soothing as well as an indication that they are feeling content. But purring in cats can be caused by a variety of factors, not the least of which is seeking attention from owners. In fact, it is likely a conscious choice on the part of the cat.Cats may be using purring as a tactic to get what they want from their owners. A study from the University of Sussex in the UK found that cats can conceal a barely audible cry inside their purring, a cry that appeals to the owner’s nurturing instincts. The research team recorded cats purring when they were after food or attention compared to purring in other contexts. The recordings were then played to 50 volunteers who rated the purrs depending on how pleasant or urgent they sounded. Interestingly, the volunteers consistently rated the “food and attention” purrs as a less pleasant, more urgent sound. But why?

The university team closely examined the audio spectrum of the demanding, more urgent purrs and found a peculiar correlation. They noticed a peak in the 220–520-hertz frequency range within the much lower frequencies of typical purring. This frequency is the same as that of a baby’s cry. The urgent, demanding frequency of crying babies has a frequency range of 300–600 hertz, triggering a human’s nurturing instinct.

Karen McComb, the scientist who led the study, postulates that cats may be taking advantage of the “innate tendencies in humans to respond to cry-like sounds in the context of nurturing offspring.”

And it goes further than purring—cats can also manipulate their meows to elicit responses from their owners. Meowing is a wholly voluntary action aimed primarily at getting the attention of the cat’s owner, and cats can adapt this depending on their life at home. In fact, cats living in homes with deaf owners are likely to meow much less—if at all—as they do not get the responses they want from their owners.

ExcitedCats veterinarian Dr. Lorna Whittemore (BVMS GPCertFelp) agrees: “Cats are an endlessly fascinating species. The ways they have adapted their communication strategies to interact with humans is one of many incredible talents. If you have ever felt manipulated into doing something for your cat—you are probably right! Cats don’t often use vocal communication amongst their own species, but they have learned that doing so can get their wants and needs fulfilled by their human companions.”

Apart from purring when they are feeling good or are self-soothing, there is another reason for cat purring—bone regeneration. Yes, astounding as it may sound, the frequency at which cats purr—about 25 to 150 hertz—may have healing properties, including bone and tissue regeneration around the 25 and 50-hertz ranges. In the wild, cats spend a lot of time laying around waiting to hunt and may purr to keep their bones from going brittle from inactivity. This tactic was even proposed by researchers to strap vibrating plates to the feet of astronauts to retain bone density while in space. Purr-like devices have also been patented for potential therapeutic healing in the wrists of humans.

The above information can cause confusion among owners who wonder exactly why their cat is purring, but context and body language are everything. It takes some time to get to know a cat—their preferences, moods, and their body language can be a huge indication of why they’re purring. A purring cat sitting on its owner’s lap almost certainly indicates contentment and purring at dinner time likely means the cat is anticipating food. A cat hiding away while purring is usually an indication of self-soothing and they’re likely using purring to ease their stress.

Cats purr for many reasons, and science will almost certainly offer more insight into this unique cat habit in the future.

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1 thoughts on “The Surprising Reasons Why Cats Purr: Manipulation, Healing, and More

  1. Sakura Feels says:

    Cats are a whole science. I was thinking about the meaning of purring the other day when I visited my sister. She has a beautiful cat who loves copying us. But I found it funny that when it was scalding hot, he was purring still even though I could see he’s moving around trying to find a comfortable cooling place. Then he purred again when we petted him. On the other hand – my friend’s cat never purrs even though I know he loves petting and cuddles and comes to ask for them! Cats do know how to keep their appeal.

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