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Why Do Cats Purr? The Top 5 Reasons + Additional Purring Insights

Why Do Cats Purr? The Top 5 Reasons + Additional Purring Insights

✔ This article was reviewed for accuracy by a licensed veterinarian.

Your cat may jump on the couch with you, crawl onto your chest, and begin purring. But they may also purr in a secluded space when they’re uncomfortable. So, why do cats purr? They do so for multiple reasons, including expressing joy, asking for something, or possibly experiencing pain.

Prior to starting this website, I always wondered why and how cats purred. Especially after noticing that my cats would sometimes purr at seemingly surprising times. I worked with Iulia, our staff vet, and performed exhaustive research on the topic to put together this guide.

Based on years of research across many studies, the experts have identified the below 5 reasons why cats purr. In addition to those 5, the below list includes all topics we cover in this post:

#1. Looking for Attention
#2. Expressing Bliss and Contentment
#3. Asking for Something
#4. Conveying Distress
#5. Healing Their Body
How Do Cats Purr?
Why Do Cats Knead and Purr?
Does a Cat Purr Help People?
How Body Language Helps Us Understand Purring
Final Thoughts on Why Your Cat Purrs

Why do cats purr? This list provides 5 reasons why.
This graphic shows some of the most common reasons cats purr.

Read on for additional information on each potential reason. It may help you better understand your cat!

#1. Looking for Attention

A cat lying down and purring on a cat bed. Why do cats purr?
If you walk by your cat and hear them purring, they may want you to take notice and show them some love.

Maybe it’s a lap to sit on, a leg to rub on or a belly rub. Your cat knows that they can use purring as a way to get your attention. Kittens learn to purr when they are just a few days old, and they purr when finding their way to their mother to nurse. 

Cat mamas also purr to tell their babies where she is and to soothe them. Newborn kittens are blind and deaf for roughly a week after birth, and then slowly gain strength with these senses. So, the ability to purr becomes paramount in communicating with their mamas for food, grooming, and protection.

When you respond positively to your cat’s purring, you reinforce their behavior. Your cat now knows that purring works to get your attention, and he/she will use it when they please!

#2. Expressing Bliss and Contentment

Your cat’s bliss and contentment are probably also yours as he/she cuddles in your lap with their motor sounding loud and clear. When laying near or on you, your cat may begin to purr due to their love for you.

It’s no surprise that a purring cat is way better than any relaxation video for soothing the stressed human soul. We cover reasons a cat’s purr is good for your health in the section below: “Does a Cat Purr Help People?

A gentle rub of their belly can also elicit blissful purring, as it can when they nestle between your legs in bed at night, sending you both into sweet, cozy dreams.

#3. Asking for Something

Besides attention, the next thing cats communicate through purring is to ask for something, which is most likely food. 

The request purr is usually accompanied by intermittent and insistent meows, both of which have an annoying and distinctive edge not found in other reasons for purring. Think about your cat – can you tell the difference when they’re looking for food as opposed to when he/she is happy?

#4. Conveying Distress

A cat lying on its side, purring. Why do cats purr?
Pay close attention to your cat’s body language when they purr. If it seems they are uncomfortable, they may be in distress or pain.

A cat in distress may purr when he/she is afraid, or in some other kind of uncomfortable situation. They purr to let you know they are feeling uneasy.

Think about your cat’s visits to the vet. Are they happy to be there? 

A cat that is purring at the vet is probably not a happy or contented cat. But just like you going to the dentist – they will survive this torture! 

#5. Healing Their Body

Here is where the science enters the purring scene in a fascinating way. A cat’s purr, which has a frequency between 25 and 150 Hertz (Hz), can assist in various healing processes. The frequency of vibrations in a cat’s body can:

  • Heal broken bones and wounds
  • Build and repair muscles and tendons
  • Reduce swelling
  • Ease pain
  • Calm breathing
  • Reduce stress

Your cat’s purr may transition from an expression of pain or distress to a healing process in a short period of time. Take a moment to think about how diverse and powerful purring can be for your cat!

How Do Cats Purr?

Now that we know the answer to: why do cats purr? We should answer the question: how do cats purr?

A cat purrs because of the coordination of the rapid, vibrating muscle movements in the larynx (voice box) with the vibrating muscles in the diaphragm. The process is as follows:

  1. A neurological signal is sent from the brain to the throat, or the laryngeal muscles.
  2. The throat muscles begin to twitch quickly – between 25 and 150 Hz.
  3. As your cat inhales and exhales, the air passes through the vibrations causing a purring noise. 

One of the most fascinating facts is that big cats purr as well – lions, panthers, cheetahs, etc. However, they only purr while exhaling, whereas domestic cats purr through inhaling and exhaling.

This video does a great job explaining the process:

Why Do Cats Knead and Purr?

A cat kneading a cat bed. Why do cats purr?
I knead you to hear this purring, baby. Maybe you can pet me, but do it perfectly or I’ll walk away immediately.

Kneading and purring start right after birth when the kitten is nursing. Kittens knead their mother’s mammary glands which enable milk to flow so they can feed.

Kneading is an instinctive trait in cats – an action they continue as they grow older.

So, why do cats purr and knead? Your cat may be purring and kneading to show they are content when near you. They are also releasing their pheromones while kneading.

Does a Cat Purr Help People?

In addition to the love and bonding between you and your cat, a cat’s purr, and general presence, can provide the following benefits for people:

  • Reduces stress
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Cat owners are less likely to experience heart attacks 

Now feel free to share this with your significant other as a selling point when trying to get another cat. But also, please don’t use this information as a reason to get a cat and avoid other practical health advice!

How Body Language Helps Us Understand Purring

Besides the caliber of the purr, your cat’s body language can provide the context in order to understand the meaning behind the purr. Consider the following purrs and corresponding actions:

  1. Looking for attention: The looking for attention purr may be accompanied by the cat rubbing against your legs or head-butting you when you are sitting on the couch together.
  2. Expressing bliss and contentment: This purr may be accompanied by your cat rolling over and exposing their belly or kneading you while they purr.
  3. Asking for something: This often-annoying purr may be accompanied by an intensely circling cat, to the extent that he/she may even trip you in their quest, most likely for food. My cats often circle my legs and purr while walking their food over to their food bowls.
  4. Conveying distress: The cat conveying distress with their purring will probably have hugely wide eyes and be in a tightly crouched position. 
  5. Healing their body: When your cat is purring to heal itself, the cat is more likely to find a secluded place where they can crouch and be alone. If it seems your cat is in bad shape, you should immediately reach out to your vet for their assistance.

Final Thoughts on Why Your Cat Purrs

So, why do cats purr, and how do you know what your cat is trying to tell you with their purring? 

Now that you have some understanding of the different meanings inherent in purring, you can try different ways to respond to your cat. If he/she purrs and you pet them, and then they fall asleep in your lap, most likely they want attention. 

On the other hand, if you approach your cat when they’re purring and they move away from you, they may be asking for something or in distress.

If you’d like to learn more about how cats show you affection, and purring is a prime example, please check out our article on the 18 ways your cat shows you love.

The more you understand what your cat is trying to say to you, the stronger your bond will become!