Why Do Cats Purr?

by Kate Fustich

There are few things in this world more satisfying than the tiny rumble that is a cat's purr. Even if you're not a "cat person," you still have to admit that those sweet little vibrations are truly glorious. Yet, beyond knowing it's amazing, you might not know exactly how or why cats purr — and it turns out there's a lot more to it than you might think.

Many people assume that purring correlates directly to a cat's happiness. If a cat is purring, that must mean they feel safe, secure, and content, right? Well, yes — but while this is often true, purring can also be a distress signal. Cats will also purr when hungry or worried. Most surprisingly of all, cats can actually purr to help themselves stay healthy.

The physical act of purring is caused by the vibrations of laryngeal muscles. In humans, these are the same muscles that move our vocal cords and help us speak, so for cats, they're just communicating in their own special way. Not much is known about how the feline brain generates and sends messages to the laryngeal muscles. In fact, it can be quite difficult to monitor a cat at all when they are purring, as the frequency and movement of the purr interferes with the sound of the heartbeat and breathing.

One important thing we do know about purring, however, is that it can be a highly beneficial act for the cat itself. Purring is thought to be very soothing and de-stressing for cats (and conveniently is the same for us feeble humans). This explains why cats purr when they are unhappy or nervous: It's a mechanism to help calm themselves and retain their cat-like composure. Purring also has numerous physical benefits, including tissue-regeneration. That's right: Purring can actually help a cat heal.

The low frequency of a purr (about 26 Hertz on average for a domestic cat) has the same muscular and bone-strengthening benefits as high-impact exercise on humans. That probably explains why they can jump from the highest bookshelf in your living room and not feel a thing.

Purring also has the benefit of releasing endorphins, a chemical that helps in pain management and overall happiness. Many cats will purr when pregnant in order to ease the aches. When the kittens are born, the purring continues as a necessary form of communication. As cats are born blind, a mother's purr is necessary in order for the newborns to find and communicate with her. Newborn kittens pick up on the technique when they are just a few days old.

Of course, the most important thing in decoding any purr is context. As it is a form of communication, it is up to us cat-lovers to discern exactly what our feline friends are trying to say. Whether they are hungry, scared, or just happy to see us — there are usually clues to indicate, and it's our job to be attuned to those clues (in order to best serve our kitten overlords, of course).

If you still don't think purring is the most magical natural occurrence of all time, just check out this kitten.

Best. Purr. Ever.

Images: Giphy (2)