The Ins and Outs of Purring

Perhaps the most fascinating quality cats have that we don’t is the ability to purr. Studies on the origins and possible reasons for the purr offer many theories but only make the habit more strange and interesting. Scientists are not in agreement whether all felines purr, but there are recorded cases of tigers and leopards caught in the act of purring where studies had indicated this was not possible, so it merely adds to mystery of the purr.  

Nursing kittens begin to purr at about two weeks of age. This is a signal to the mother that her litter is free of danger, and the purr is returned to the kittens in an act of communication that domestic cats later use with pet owners.

A comprehensive study conducted at the Davis School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California concluded that purring originates from the cat’s central nervous system, but all reports to date have been inconclusive on the exact mechanism behind purring. Still, the study was able to determine that purring is a voluntary act on the part of the cat, which is enormously helpful to vets and cat owners looking for a better understanding of their charges and pets. A voluntary purr indicates that the cat uses it to communicate, which leads to many interesting truths about cat behavior.Most often a contented cat will purr, as when it is petted or played with.

Some cat owners have claimed their cats begin purring suddenly while sleeping, which leads to the notion that cats, like us, are dreamers. Cats also will purr when interacting with playmates, leading to a further notion that each cat has a purr easily recognized by housemate cats. The biggest lesson here is that if your cat purrs, it is very likely happy to be around you.However, cats can also purr for other reasons, and in sharply different situations.

Often a cat will purr when encountering a strange cat. Experts have theorized that this purr could be a submission trick, attempting to lull the stranger into the belief that a purring cat will not become aggressive. It was recently recorded that leopards began to purr directly following a successful capture of prey. This may confirm a cat’s instinct that the purr can act as a powerful sedative, helping to calm any creature close by, whether a pet owner or a doomed mouse.  

Pregnant cats have been observed to purr vigorously when in the process of giving birth. This indicates that cats will purr to calm themselves down and help mask their own pain. On a more serious and melancholy note, it is widely observed that a cat will begin to purr when in the presence of a veterinarian about to deliver a euthanasia shot. There is no way to determine what this could mean. It could be a testament to the professionalism of veterinary staff in making sure cats are comfortable, or the cat may just be asking for a reprieve. Taken together, we can never be certain about the reasons for purring, but the odds are you have a happy cat, so keep on petting.