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Why Cats Purr

Your cat’s purr can mean many different things. Find out what she’s trying to tell you.

The Purpose of Purring continued...

Although contentment does appear to produce purring, cats also purr when frightened or threatened. One way to think about this is to equate purring with smiling, says Kelly Morgan, DVM, clinical instructor at the Chicago Center for Veterinary medicine of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine in Chicago. 

“People will smile when they’re nervous, when they want something, and when they’re happy, so perhaps the purr can also be an appeasing gesture,” Morgan says, adding that this is purely speculation.

Purr-suasive Purrs

If you’ve ever wondered why your cat is so hard to ignore each morning, you’ll take a special interest in a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K. 

Karen McComb, PhD, who headed the study, decided to explore the unique characteristics of these insistent purrs after wondering why her own cat could be so annoying. In the study, recordings of 10 cats’ purrs revealed that cats sometimes develop a “twist on purring.” 

Cats add a vocalization into the mix to solicit responses from humans, Hart says. “Added to the basic 25 Hz purr is an overlay of a high-frequency cry-meow that humans perceive as somewhat obnoxious,” he says. “Cats apparently learn to do this to get people to feed them sooner.” 

This solicitation purr seems to develop more often in quiet households where cats have a one-on-one relationship with a human, and the purr is less likely to be overlooked. But even people with no cat experience perceived this special purr as more urgent and less pleasant. McComb's team suggests that cats may have learned how to tap into a mammalian response for nurturing offspring by embedding a cry within a call that’s normally associated with contentment.

“I wonder if what we’ve done is to select pet cats to give us signals that they need us,” says Overall, author of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals.


Healing Powers of the Purr?

Cats appear to purr for a host of other reasons as well. They purr when in pain or in labor, when ill or injured, or even when near death. Kittens also purr soon after birth. What could account for all this energy expenditure - especially during times of vulnerability? Could it be there’s a significant survival advantage?

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