Why Do Cats Purr?

A behavior expert Marilyn Krieger explains the mysteries behind a cat's purr.

Q: Why do cats purr? I’ve heard our cats purr when they seem to be happily sitting on my lap but, sadly, I also heard our beloved 20 year old Zelda Kitty purr as she passed on. What is it about purring? Do cats purr when they are happy or when they are sad?

A: Purring is complex and fascinating. Many studies and theories explore the mechanism of the cat purr and the reasons behind it. Cats purr in a variety of circumstances, including in birth, death and when they seem content with their world. The act of purring may release calming endorphins and also help kittens survive. There’s more to the purr then meets the ear.   

Kittens are first welcomed into the world by their mom’s purr. Kittens are born deaf and blind, so they need a little help finding their first meals. The vibrations of the mother’s purr are perfect homing devices, guiding the kittens to nurse. It has been theorized that mother cats purr when giving birth because they are in pain and purring releases soothing endorphins. Purring is also a protective survival mechanism. Predators can hear cries and meows, but purr vibrations are harder to detect, helping to keep the newborns and their mom safe.

Cats communicate their feelings of comfort and satisfaction through purrs. Sometimes these purrs are accompanied by a cat’s kneading, a behavior which goes back to when they were kittens, safe and protected by their mom, as they nursed.

Another theory about purring is that cats improve their muscle tone while they purr. Dr. Leslie Lyons wrote an article for Scientific American stating that the vibrations from the purr stimulates muscles and bones without the cat having to expend energy.    

Purrs aren’t always happy. It is theorized that the endorphins that are released while purring comforts cats and dulls their pain. Cats will purr when they are injured or stressed and some cats will purr when they are dying. The primal vibration of the purr which initially welcomed them into the world is also the final purr which helps them complete their life journey.

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