There are some cat behaviors that are pretty easy to read. The feline hiss, and all the body language that goes with it, is clearly not the sign of a happy cat.
Then there’s purring which is pretty clearly a happiness overload (at least in most cases).
But what about the feline sigh? Why do cats sigh?
Sighing is often associated with frustration, concern, or anxiety in humans and we might assume that it’s the same for our cats. But that’s not the case and cats typically sigh as a sign of comfort and contentment. Sighing also has a physiological function for cats can be part of a normal breathing pattern.
We’re going to go in-depth on the feline sigh but first, let’s get a better understanding of sighing in general.
Why Do Humans Sigh?
Sighing isn’t just all for show. It has an important biological function for your respiratory system. According to the folks at Patch.com, the deep inhalation of a sigh “brings in twice the volume of air, which serves to pop open your alveoli. Your lungs contain 500 million of these balloon-like sacs. When your alveoli collapse, a sigh is the only way to reinflate them. This likely explains why the average adult sighs involuntarily about 12 times every hour.”
But despite such frequent sighing, humans still associate sighing with negative emotions. One study found that people were 10 times more likely to associate negative emotions to people sighing instead of positive ones. Those negative emotions could be frustration in the moment, sad contemplation of the past, or anything in between.
So Why Do Cats Sigh?
We’re supposed to be explaining why cats sigh so why all this talk of humans?
Because it helps illustrate how humans are likely to see sighing in cats. Many folks are frantically researching cat sighs because they’re worried their cat’s sighs are a sign that their feline friend is stressed, anxious or depressed.
But that’s really a bit of anthropomorphization since that’s how we see sighing in humans.
So let’s took at the two main reasons why a cat sighs.
Reason 1: It’s Biological
Just as humans need to sigh in order to refill alveoli, so does your cat. According to the folks at Cornell University, “Despite some minor anatomical differences, feline lungs are structured just like human lungs, operate in the same way, and serve the same purpose.”
While I wasn’t able to find any studies that focused on the feline sigh, it’s reasonable to assume that like humans our cats are sighing much more than we notice. These deeper breaths help cats reinflate their lungs just like they do for us.
Reason 2: It’s A Sign of Comfort
Our cats live in the moment. They aren’t thinking about the mistakes they made as a kitten and letting out a contemplative sigh of regret. Instead, they’re enjoying what’s around them in the present moment.
So while humans may sigh as they’re lost in thought it’s not likely to happen for our cats. Instead, absolutely adorable sighs like these are effectively a “reset” as cats lay down to rest:
We can all agree that this cat isn’t upset! That’s a sigh of relaxation and contentment.
The sigh as a relaxation or reset technique occurs in humans as well and at the risk of anthropomorphizing, while researching this article I noticed myself sighing after climbing into bed at the end of a long day.
In some ways, the feline sigh is similar to purring which can be used self-soothing or relaxation technique. Cats have several of these self-soothing techniques like kneading, suckling, or even licking things in some cases.
Be Happy About The Cat Sigh!
In the vast majority of cases, the cat sigh should make you happy! My cat most often sighs after she’s taken a few moments to find the perfect spot to lay down.
Every cat will have their own style, but like the cat in the video above my cat will add her own audible flair to sigh into an almost half-chirp. Needless to say, it’s very cute.
Huffing vs Sighing
While sighs are characterized by deep long breaths in and out, huffs are the opposite. Cat huffs are short, shallow breaths that almost sound like a spray bottle squirting.
But why do cats huff?
Most often the feline huff is a sign of irritation, annoyance, and aggravation. Like a hiss, it’s a distance-increasing behavior that lets the world know it’s time to make some space. Cats will often huff at other cats during minor confrontations.
While they can sometimes be confused with a sigh, they are quite different. Here’s a good video of a cat huffing:
As you can see, there’s a big difference between the irritated huffing cat and the content sighing cat!
Despite the human sigh usually being a sign of pensive contemplation or frustration, it’s quite the opposite for cats! For our feline friends, the sigh is usually a celebration of the present moment and a way for cats to express their relaxation!
But there’s also the biological function and sighing serves an important physiological function for both cats and humans.