Do we really know why cats purr?

Purring in cats is quite common. While you may have seen a domesticated cat at your house or  in the neighbourhood purr, there is documented evidence of even larger cats such as tigers, lions, panthers and cheetahs which have been found purring in the wild. While cat owners often take purring as a good sign and end up lathering the feline with loads of attention and ‘awwwwwws’, the fact remains that no one really knows why cats purr. So, although, the common cat got domesticated into human settlements somewhere around 10,000 years ago, there is very little that we actually know about why they exhibit such behaviour. Modern scientific methods continue to be used to determine, what might seem to a trivial question. But all studies so far have only ended up adding more more speculated reasons as to why cats purr.

Before we tell you to possible reasons for purring of cats, let us look at the question HOW do cats purr? Initially researchers had theorized that cats have a separate organ for purring. But when no such organ was found, an alternate theory emerged that the purr was caused by blood passing through a vein in the abdomen or as a by-product of the sound of blood hitting the aorta artery in the throat of the cat. However, it was only about a decade ago that studies revealed that the purring sound is brought by the combined action of the diaphragmatic and laryngeal muscles, when triggered by intermittent signaling of neural oscillator. Put simply, this means that cat’s brain signals muscles in the voice box to vibrate thereby allowing them to function as valve for air flowing due to the action of the diaphragm, thus producing a purr! The interesting part is that a domesticated cat (and its close relatives) can purr while inhaling as well as when exhaling whereas larger cats such as lions, tigers, panthers etc. purr only when exhaling. Now that we know for sure, how cats manage to purr, we will move onto the reasons they purr.

Firstly, purring in cats is attributed to their way of garnering attention or indicating hunger to their owners. Although, this is a popular theory, it is also more of a ‘cat owner’ explanation and therefore, highly biased. It is likely that cats purr at certain times of the day, which might coincide with their feeding times, making the owner that the cat is hungry. It could also be the case that cats are well aware that their owners give them food when they purr, which also means that we have sufficient evidence that cats (by purring) have devised a mechanism to manipulate actions of their owners to suit their needs. Well, as interesting as this sounds, it does not quite explain why wild cats purr.

Moving onto the second and equally well accepted theory that the purpose of purring is quite versatile and could mean anything from contentment to fear, from pain to anxiety or could just be a way to communicate with its young ones, depending on the situation the cat is in. The theory for purring as a way to demonstrate emotions can explain various scenarios such as a purring during a regular visit to the veterinarian clinic or when that seen when cats are recovering from an injury. A nursing mother may purr near her newborn kittens to establish a bond with them or even instill a sense of security and comfort among her litter.

What if we told you that all it took to heal a broken bone was a lot of talking to yourself or your family. Well, unfortunately we can’t do that but apparently cats can! This interesting theory emerged from a research carried out at the University of California, which emphasized on the self-healing powers of cats. How do they do it? Well, you might be well aware that cats are good at conserving energy, quite evident by their long hours of rest and sleep. But their lack of activity should also mean that they should have reduced bone density. Yet, they don’t.  Studies revealed that the 25 Hz frequency of purring in cats is a good stimulus for bones to regain their integrity or for muscular cells to recover from atrophy, without spending a lot of energy.

Thus, the simply curiosity of why and how cats purr is now leading the way as candidate treatment for spaceflight osteopenia, or the bone loss astronauts face while spending time in conditions of zero gravity.

Here is a fun video of a big cat purring, enjoy!

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  1. What a great article have to share about science and your webpage very helpful for study point of view. Thank you assistant about it.

  2. coffeetablescienceJuly 14, 2014 at 4:05 PM

    Thanks Megan

  3. coffeetablescienceJuly 14, 2014 at 4:06 PM

    Glad you found our site informative


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