The trifecta of common cat sounds: the meow, the middle-of-the-night-soul-wrenching-screech and the purr. We know that the meow means everything ranging from ‘provide me with food, immediately’ to ‘wake up and provide me with food, immediately’.
The soul-wrenching-screech is best left as an untouched mystery; investigating its meaning is grounds for a horror film.
So we’ll tackle the purr, then. Just what does it mean when a cat purrs?
What is a purr?
First, let’s look at what a purr actually is.
A cat’s purring is an unmistakable sound; but it’s also a fairly strange one. Purrs are inherently different from a simple meow or mewl in that they also incorporate a physical aspect – it isn’t just a sound, but also a vibration, a deep rumble coming from the depths of your kitty.
Nobody is quite certain about what produces a purr; but the general consensus is that it stems from the larynx and diaphragm, which have an effect over the vocal cords during a cat’s breathing cycle… This particular theory bears credibility due to cats with laryngeal damage or infections being unable to purr at all.
The technical bit out of the way, now we can get to the even less certain area of a purr’s purpose.
Happiness is a warm purr? Maybe not
It’s not much of a secret, whether you’re a cat owner or not, that a deep, satisfying purr is usually a sign that a cat is contended, comfortable or happy in a particular person’s company.
For the most part, a happy purr can be identified by other aspects of the animal’s body language: is it rubbing up against you? Weaving between your legs? Is its tail raised in a question mark-esque shape? Is it trying to ‘head butt’ you?
All strong signs that the purr is a rumble of satisfaction.
But the purr is actually a much more detailed form of feline communication, stemming from the kitten’s birth. When new born cats arrive in the world, they are born both blind and deaf – but do, of course, still have a sense of touch and can thus feel the vibrations of their mother’s purr.
The mother cat uses her deep, rumbling purr to attract the blind kittens towards her where they can nestle in for warmth, comfort and milk. After a few days of development the new born will begin to purr for itself, allowing mother and child to communicate with more nuance.
Although cat hunger is usually characterized by meowing and knocking things off of your desk whilst you’re trying to work so you have money to put cat food on the table in the first place… purring can also be a huge indicator that your cat is looking for food.
Again, body language can be an invaluable tool in deciphering what your domestic fur ball is after; but the actual purr of a hungry cat will sound different in and of itself, and may be interspersed with small cries or mewling.
An increasingly interesting train of thought regarding cat purrs is that they actually have some healing qualities. You may have noticed that your cat tends to purr to itself when it is injured, upset or frightened (although, not as common as simply wailing through the pain).
When we say ‘healing properties’ it can basically be broken down into two categories…
The first is that the physical feeling of purring can help to alleviate any stress or anxiety that the cat might be feeling (remember that cats are very prone to various types of anxiety and nervousness); this is often compared to how a new born baby might suck its thumb as a soothing mechanism.
The second is that the purr itself can actually vibrate at particular frequencies which help with healing damaged or broken bones, injured muscles and even reduce swelling of injuries – this goes for both the animal itself, and any humans the cat may or may not be rubbing up against at the time.
So, you might want to think twice the next time you swat that purring kitten away from your face. You might miss out on all the lovely cat purr healing benefits.
There’s a sort of golden mean running through the rules of cat ownership – an unattainable balance. Cats are simultaneously one of the most neediest and clingy domestic pets that money can buy, whilst also being incredibly independent and huffy.
We don’t yet know where that delicate middle ground is; mankind is yet to transcend that particular horizon.
Like it or not, though, your cat likely knows how to play you like a puppet. Often a needy, or attention seeking cat will elicit a particular purr that can sound similar to a baby’s mewling or make you feel sorry for the fur ball.
The worst part? Even though you’re now hip to this little manipulative trick, you’ll still fall for it.
The last and, perhaps, most simple explanation for a cat’s purring is that it’s simply trying to communicate with another of its kind.
Usually this behavior is reserved for older cats (read: more mature cats) that simply want to play or be friendly with a neighboring feline.
Of course, there’s no way to really tell what they’re talking about when they get together. Personally, I believe we’re on the cusp of some kind of clandestine feline takeover – I tried to infiltrate my local circle of cats, but they knew I was wearing a wire.
Very embarrassing for all involved. My own cat won’t even look me in the eyes anymore. I don’t want to talk about it, to be honest. Please stop asking.
So there you have it; the humble purr may not be quite as simplistic as once thought. As mentioned above, it’s best to think about the situation as a whole, and your cat’s behavior and body language when trying to work out what they might mean by a particular purr.
Sometimes it’s clear as day, but often they like to make it as difficult as possible. What’s new?