Cats purr for a variety of reasons. Here’s what you need to know about why cats purr and what your cat may be telling you when her motor is running.

By Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB
August 24, 2020
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Your cat’s motor is running. You can hear him purring even though he’s across the room. Why do cats purr? And why does he purr so loudly? Is he happy? Maybe. But he could also be trying to get your attention, or he could be distressed. 

Cats make a purring sound by controlling the airflow as they breathe, using the muscles in their larynx and their diaphragm. Fun fact: Domestic cats aren’t the only cat species that purr. The bobcat, cheetah, and lynx also purr. 

Purring starts days after birth. Kittens purr and knead when they are suckling, and Momma Cat might purr then too. This may be one way kittens communicate the need to continue nursing; Mom will be able to hear and feel the purr. The kitten is sort of saying, “Hey, I am still here. Don’t move!” or “I LOVE this!”

We don’t always know for sure why cats purr, or knead, or meow. But here are some of the most common reasons why your cat purrs and what he might be trying to tell you. 

1. Cats Purr to Draw You In

Because kittens are born blind and deaf, momma cats use purring to lure their kittens closer in order to keep them safe and get them their first meal. Likewise, purring serves to draw you closer to your cat, by getting your attention. Your cat may purr when he needs a little love, for instance. 

While you didn’t teach your cat to purr, your actions may inspire more frequent purring. If you pay attention to your cat when he purrs, he’s likely to repeat that behavior in the future. That reinforcement keeps the behavior strong. 

2. Cats Purr When They Are Blissful

Adult cats purr when they are interacting with people, objects, or animals that they love. Or when they are doing something that feels good, such as rolling or rubbing. For instance, your cat may purr when you stroke him. Or she may purr at night when she cuddles up between your feet on the bed.

3. Purring May Say Your Cat Needs You

Purring can be an “ask” for help. Your cat may be hungry or want your attention. Researchers have shown that astute pet parents can tell the difference between their cat’s purrs. Meow-like sounds in the purrs are intended to solicit food. Which sounds distinct from purrs of happiness. Can you tell the difference?

4. Purring May Be a Sign of Distress

Purring doesn’t always equal happiness. Sometimes cats purr when they are afraid, such as during a veterinary visit. This might be a throwback to when kittens purred to solicit help or care from their mother. Likewise, purring may be your cat’s way to say that she is in distress and needs some help.

5. Purring Can Promote Healing

Cats can lower our stress and blood pressure, but purring is also about self-healing. A cat may purr to heal herself. Cats purr at frequencies between 25 and 150 Hz and exhibit strong purring between 25 and 50 Hz. Interestingly enough, these frequencies also correspond with the frequencies used in the treatment of fractures and pain. These frequencies may also assist in muscle growth, flexibility, and wound healing. So your cat may be purring to heal herself. 

When your cat purrs, the best thing to do is pay attention. Note the context, his body language, the tone of the purr, and what he does in response to your reaction. When he purrs, try different things. If you pet him, does he settle down and go to sleep? If so, he wanted you to pet him. Does he move away from you? If so, he may need food or want to play. Getting to know your cat by watching and listening to his signals helps you bond with each other and deepens your kitty love.