Hearing the soft purr of a cat is a true privilege and if you’ve ever been this lucky to hear this majestic sound and feel the low vibrations as you pet them, then you’ve probably wondered whether it’s some sort of feline magic power!
But is purring involuntary? Cats can communicate with us through different means, and purring is one of them. Purring is mostly an automatic reaction, and cats do it when they’re content or they need to calm themselves, but cats can also choose to purr when they need something from us.
If you are curious to know more about your cat’s purring mechanism and how much they’re in control of it then let’s not waste any more time and dive deeper into the mysterious world of purring.
Is Purring Involuntary?
There’s been a veil of mystery around purring and its nature for a long time, and many scientists have trouble deciding on whether it’s an involuntary action or not. Purring is a subtle sound, unlike meowing and yowling that are clearly intentional vocalizations and they are specifically aimed at humans for attention. As cat parents, we usually notice purring when our kitties sit on our lap, as a response to the petting they’re receiving. So, it’s not surprising that we associate it more with an involuntary response, specifically an expression of pleasure.
In reality, purring is most likely a little bit of both. Evidence suggests that the neural oscillator in their brain may be triggered by endorphins that are released when our cats experience both pleasure and pain. This means that the brain stimulation that triggers their purring might not be under their conscious control. While Vanessa Barrs, a feline expert agrees with this theory she also states that “despite the autonomic responses involved, cats do have a conscious control over purring.”
So, in a way, purring is an automatic reflex that can occur spontaneously, kind of like blinking since we mostly blink instinctively, but we can also blink when we choose to.
How Do Cats Purr?
Knowing whether our cats purr intentionally, automatically or both still doesn’t really unveil the mystery of the mechanics responsible for its production. For a long time, what made a cat purr capabilities eluded the scientific community, and while no one is completely sure to this day one theory is more prevalent.
This theory explains that cats generate this sound by using their larynx (the voice box) and diaphragm the main muscle used for breathing. There’s also an important rigid bone in the cat’s throat that supports the larynx and tongue, called the hyoid. When our cats breathe in and out and the air hits the larynx muscles in the throat it vibrates and it makes the hyoid bone resonate, thus producing this low rumble we call purring.
Of course, we know that our cats don’t simply purr every time they breathe, but according to research, “a region of the cat ’s brain signals the muscles that make up its voice box, called the laryngeal muscles, to vibrate.” Venessa Barrs also adds that “the frequency of the purr is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which operates largely unconsciously to regulate bodily functions.”
So, while we know that a combination of breathing along with certain brain signals can turn on our purring machines, how the central nervous system produces and controls those contractions/vibrations is yet to be understood, and we still have a lot to learn about this unique feline phenomenon!
When Is Purring Voluntary?
If cats are truly capable of controlling their purrs, then we could consider this sound as another form of communication. It’s also clear that when our kitties purr it’s meant for those who are close enough to hear and feel it since the frequency and volume are too low to travel, so what are they trying to tell us?
To Signal Content
I’m sure if you’re a cat parent then a purring kitty on your lap or by your side is nothing new, and it can always turn a frown upside down! I mean when purring happens the setting is usually idilic since whenever they make this sound they’re most likely relaxed and enjoying your company and some thorough petting. So, could there be a correlation between feeling good and purring?
Well according to research done for the Journal of Zoology, “Purring is produced mostly by juveniles, but also by adults, in positive contexts (relaxed, friendly) such as nursing/suckling, mutual grooming, courtship or friendly approach.” This is most likely a voluntary kind of purring that cats use to express contentment especially if their overall behavior shows us that they’re healthy and happy kitties.
So, basically, our cats can answer petting, snuggles, or even a good morning with a purrfect purr!
While my cats’ purrs never cease to amaze me, some scientists believe that there is a specific soft kitty mantra that is intentionally this alluring. Just like there is a variety of meows, cats can also produce more than one kind of purr. The purr of contentment is more reminiscent of the sound cats produced as kittens when suckling, but apparently there’s another type of purr that contains a high-pitched note that is similar in frequency to a cry, but not as loud.
This purr slash soft meow is known as the “Solicitation Purr”. An analysis of the sound showed that cats used this purr to ask for food or some other favor from their caregiver, and most of the time it seemed to work because the cry elicits a caregiving response. Karen McCombemail that was responsible for this research found that “cats can exaggerate this almost-hidden aspect of purring at will and do so when they find it useful.”
In other words, our kitties have us wrapped around their paws with their special purr, but I truly don’t see the problem with that!
Can Purring Be Involuntary?
Most behaviors, feline or not can be voluntary, involuntary, and both and purring belongs in the last category. Just think about it! It would be absurd if our kitties could only have one single type of purr sound that had only one use. So, now that we know how intentional purring works let’s explore its less voluntary function.
Purring As A Calming Mechanism
Purring is mostly associated with a happy cat, as an expression of their love for their human and other animals, however, a cat can also purr when they feel the opposite of happiness. In this case, purring is usually a coping mechanism that our feline companions implore when they’re not feeling well mentally or physically. I’m sure most of us can relate, when I feel anxious I also use my cat’s purring as a calming sound, but while I do this consciously our cats most likely turn on their anti-anxiety purr automatically,
It’s not always easy to see the difference between a happy and a self-soothing purr unless we look at the circumstances and our cat’s overall health and happiness. You might have noticed your kitty purr when they’re under duress which can often happen at the vet’s office. Other stressful situations can be moving house, or a new addition to your family, a partner, a baby, or another cat could spark jealousy, and you might find your cat hiding, be more lethargic, aggressive even.
That’s why you can’t simply rely on your cat’s purring as a sign of their happiness because under such circumstances it’s most likely not an intentional positive statement. That’s why it’s important to help them feel better and get their happy purr back by enriching their environment, making any changes less stressful, or employing a cat behaviorist.
To Soothe Pain
When anxious our cat’s brain employs this soft and familiar sound, but research suggests that purring is not simply a mental self-soothing mechanism, it also helps cats get physically better faster. In a study, an accelerometer was used to measure domestic cat purrs and it showed that they generated strong frequencies between 25 and 150 Hz and that they were also capable of producing fundamental, dominant, or strong frequencies at exactly 25 Hz and 50 Hz. These are the two low frequencies that best promote bone growth/fracture healing.
Moreso, the findings revealed that “Purr frequencies correspond to vibrational/electrical frequencies used in treatment for bone growth/fractures, pain, edema, muscle growth/strain, joint flexibility, dyspnea, and wounds.” Having both the role of predator and prey in their natural setting this kind of healing mechanism is a great feline advantage. Not only does it give them a higher chance of survival in case of an accident or attack, but because of their sedentary lifestyle, this involuntary purring could help keep their bones from becoming weak and brittle.
As I’ve mentioned above purring is also associated with the release of endorphins that happens when our cats experience both pleasure and pain, specifically because endorphins act as analgesics. This means that this automatic response to discomfort helps diminish the perception of pain like morphine does. So, not only do our cats purr instinctively to heal their bones and wounds, to build muscle and repair tendons, but they also purr to alleviate their pain, when they’re in labor, and before death.
Is Purring Different For Kittens?
Since fully grown cats are aware of their capabilities, using purring consciously should be second nature to them, but how long would it take a kitten to learn all the different purrs and purring tricks?
One of the first vocalizations a kitten learns to produce when they’re just a couple of days old is the purring sound. It is believed that this sound helps strengthen the bond between kittens and their mother, as they all purr together and most importantly it lets the mother know that her babies are close by and content.
Just listen to this symphony created by a whole kindle of kittens!
Whether kittens have control over their purrs from day one is unknown, perhaps they do it as a reaction to their mother’s purr, or maybe their instincts take over first and as they grow and discover the world around them, they slowly begin to acquire complete mastery over their purrs and before they even know it they’re using them for their own benefit!
Do All Cats Purr The Same?
All domestic cats have the ability to purr, they can all use this sound unintentionally and intentionally, depending on their needs and the overall context. Though when it comes to intensity and volume things can differ. I have two cats and I can clearly see the variations in their purring. They both purr when I pet them, but only one of them will purr when I feed them. Their voices when they meow are in no way alike and the same goes for their purring sound. One purr is high-pitched and loud while the other one is deep, and you can only hear it if you place your head on them.
I’ve also noticed that both of my cats can change the intensity of their purrs depending on the situation, and I’m sure most cats also have unique purring sounds, which some can use at the drop of a hat while others selectively instead. For example, Merlin has won a spot in the Guinness World Records for the loudest purr at 67.8 dB.
While all domestic cats can purr, there are other felines that share the same ability. As I’ve already mentioned above the hyoid bone in the cat’s throat is rigid that’s why the vibrations that are created produce this rumbling sound. This anatomical similarity can be found in most small cats like bobcats, lynxes while the only large cats that can purr are cheetahs and cougars. It’s safe to assume that these felines use purring in a similar manner to our housecats, but they might not use solicitation purrs since according to research “feral cats and pet cats vocalize differently.”
Large cats on the other hand, like the lion, tiger, leopard, and jaguar have a more flexible hyoid bone which means that they can’t purr instead they roar. As Benjamin L. Hart, DVM, Ph.D. noted “if you’re a big cat and you have to move around a lot to get prey, loud roaring plays a huge part in maintaining your territory.” On the other hand, our cats are small so it’s quite likely that roaring wouldn’t work for them, instead, territorial marking does the trick, while their sweet purring is a more personal tool of communication.
What If My Cat Doesn’t Purr?
When we bring a cat into our home, it’s important that we keep our expectations low and treat them as the individuals that they are. Cats are unique creatures with their own quirks and independent personalities, which also means that they don’t all purr the same. If you’re a new cat parent and your kitty isn’t purring, then they might need more time to get to know you and their new home. Once a kitty begins to feel safe and you develop a bond, you might notice them purring in your presence and as time goes by it might become louder and more confident.
Then again the sudden lack of purring might have nothing to do with your familiarity, instead, it might be a sign of stress. I know I’ve mentioned that cats usually purr when they’re stressed, but not all cats do and some might use this calming technique when they’re alone or hiding. If you’ve been missing from home more than usual or you’ve brought home another cat they might feel too anxious to purr around you or the frequency is so low that you can’t hear it or feel it.
Marjan Debevere, a cat shelter photographer says that they often find cats purring “when we tickle them in places that they like to be tickled.” She also adds that “All cats are different; some never purr and some will purr constantly.”
If you can’t seem to find any signs of purring then you need to look at the bigger picture and not focus solemnly on this sound or the lack of it. Perhaps you need to ask yourself whether your feline companion is happy or do they look healthy. Have you noticed any other strange practices like excessive behaviors in the litterbox or excessive meowing? The loss of a sound like purring can be something temporal, but it could also be a sign of an illness. Scientists have found that when a cat has a paralysis of the larynx, they lose the ability to purr.
So, if you think that your cat has lost their purr or any other purr-related concern then it’s always a good idea to talk with a veterinarian and set your mind at ease.
Now that we’ve reached the end of this article, I think we can agree that our cat’s purring ability is no longer as mysterious as it once was, but it’s no less mesmerizing. Now if you excuse me, after all this purrfect information, it’s time I get my daily dose of purring mantra myself.
Don’t forget to tell us if your cats also use the power of their purr to get some extra treats, a game session, or your massage skills!