Why Do Cats Purr?

Posted by Theresa Blood on

Cats can be very expressive, both vocally and physically, but despite all the meowing, the purring and the head butts in the shin, we don’t always understand exactly what’s behind a cat’s behavior. Few owners reflect, for example on the fact that our cats are rather preoccupied with covering us, our belongings and our property with their scent. Cats spend most of the time sleeping, but they are given to bouts of frenetic activity. They do things which annoy us (sitting on a book we’re trying to read), or which make us laugh (trying to snuggle up in a slipper), and still more things which just baffle us (bum in the face, anyone?). But whatever they’re doing makes perfect sense through a cat’s eyes.We don’t usually think of cats as particularly noisy (not compared to dogs at any rate), but they can be extremely vocal. Cats produce an astonishing range of sounds, from plaintiff meows to tigerish growls, with a whole load of chattering, chirruping, hissing, howling and caterwauling in between. Scientists have noted nineteen different vocal patterns in cats and it’s common for cats to add their own personal sounds to the list, making them one of the most talkative animals around.

Given that domestic cats are descended from largely solitary wildcats, it’s not immediately apparent why they should have developed such a complex system of vocal communication. Females do use a range of sounds to communicate with their kittens, but wildcats rarely meow as a way of communicating with other adult cats. In fact, the purpose of the meow in the wild is not fully understood. Tellingly, feral cats – despite being every bit as domestic as our pets – are also much less vocal.

It seems likely, then, that these chatty tendencies have developed and expanded as a direct result of close association with humans. So, yes, your cat really is trying to tell you something. Humans are hard-wired to respond to vocalizations (this is why babies make so much noise well before they have anything interesting to say for themselves) and cats have learnt that ‘speaking’ to us is often rewarded with attention or food. With a bit of practice, humans can even be taught to follow instructions. ’Feed me’, ‘let me out’, ‘let me in again’ are orders that most humans can be trained to understand.

It’s not just the meow that can be used to control human behavior. Cats cunningly use their purrs to encourage us to satisfy their every whim. Scientists have recorded two distinct types of cat purr. The non-solicitation purr expresses general contentment and is often heard when a cat is being stroked. The solicitation purr, by contrast, seems to be aimed very squarely at us and is commonly heard when a cat anticipates food. This second type of purr is faster and contains peaks of louder, higher frequency sounds (similar to the frequency of a crying baby). Humans generally find this second purr more annoying, but also hard to ignore. Nothing gets a person running to the cat-food cupboard more quickly than a strategically deployed solicitation purr.That soft, soothing purring sound has to be one of the greatest joys of sharing life with a cat. The word “purr” generally suggests contentment and satisfaction, whether applied to a cat or human, but how do cats produce such a beguiling sound and what does it really mean?

Firstly, the technicalities. Cats use their larynx and diaphragm muscles to purr, producing 20-30 vibrations per second, and they’re able to do this while both inhaling and exhaling. Domestic cats are not the only purring felines, but cats can either roar or purr – not both. Lions, for instance, can manage a magnificent roar but can’t purr for toffee.

Cats purr when they’re having a special moment with their owners and they can also purr when they’re in contact with other familiar cats they feel bonded to. Cats often purr when they are resting together, grooming each other or rubbing against each other. This cat-to-cat purring begins very early – almost as soon as a cats’ life begins. Newborn kittens respond to the vibrations of their mother’s purring before they can see or hear and they are able to purr back to their mother after a couple of days. Purring keeps mom and kitten in close contact. Female cats also purr while they are giving birth, a time of considerable exertion. In fact, it’s not unusual for cats to purr when in pain or distress or even dying. Screaming in pain is likely to attract the attention of enemies, so cats have developed a quieter way to soothe themselves. The purr is not so much an expression of happiness as a self-soothing mechanism which works in good times and bad.

Feline Vocalization types:
  • “Purr” – A polite request for more affection when relaxed, or for comfort when scared, unwell, in pain, giving birth, or approaching death. Purring has potentially self-soothing and tissue-healing roles too. Some cats add an extra high-pitched cry that presses our “nurturing instinct” button, not unlike the way a human baby’s cry does.
  • “Meow” – A greeting or a request for human assistance, food or affection, or something else they desire. The delivery ranges from upbeat greetings, gentle reminders, borderline harassments, or “final demands” – such as “Feed-me-nowww!” Kittens produce a high-pitched “mew”. Exclamatory mows tend to announce a successful “hunt”. “Silent” meows are too high-pitched for our ears to detect.
  • “Yowl” (aka “whine” or “wail”) – A more intense, sustained “meow”. A cry for help when trapped, lost nauseous, or confused. Also used to drive a threat away.
  • “Chirrup” (aka “chirp” or “trill”) – A soft, short, high-pitched rolled “R” or “prrp” sound with a rising inflection. It’s used for locating and greeting other cats, by mothers to find their kittens, when greeting familiar humans, or requesting something desirable.
  • “Chatter” (aka “chitter” or “twitter”) – A mix of restrained excitement and frustration when desiring unattainable prey.
  • “Caterwaul” – A long, drawn-out female mating call that sounds like they’re in pain. A tomcat’s mating call is a distinctive “mowl”.

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