Nothing gets better than seeing your cat curled up in your lap purring. Those gentle vibrations are so calming that they can sometimes even slow down your fast heart rate. But why do cats purr when you pet them? And do they ever purr when they’re not being stroked?
Assuming that purring always means that a feline is happy is entirely wrong because there is a range of reasons why your furry friend can release these vibrations. Yes, they could be calm and content, but it could also be a sign of stress, overstimulation, or other less positive reasons. In fact, you’ll be surprised to see that there are eight common causes of throat vibrations, and they aren’t all so happy.
To help you get familiar with your feline’s behavior and recognize warning signs the second they happen, I put together this comprehensive guide of reasons why cats purr. But first, let’s find out how this adorable rumble happens and the entire mechanism behind it.
How Do Cats Purr?
Cats are so fascinating because every bit of their behavior makes you wonder: why do they do it, what does it mean, how do they do it, and is it normal? Purring is one of the cutest, most satisfying sounds that most feline parents relate to happiness. But does it always point to a happy furry friend, and what’s the mechanism of it?
This vibrating sound is something that is triggered in your feline’s brain. In certain situations, your cat’s brain will send signals to the muscles located in the larynx, more commonly known as their voice box. It is a small organ located at the top of the neck and is what is responsible for making sounds.
Once the neuro signals arrive at the laryngeal muscles, they start to constrict and dilate at 25 to 150 vibrations per minute and separate the vocal cords. The diaphragm moves simultaneously with the muscles and enables this soothing sound. Cats will purr while they’re resting, eating, laying down, sitting up. It’s like they have a machine in their throat that releases adorable sounds.
Why Do Cats Purr When You Stroke Them?
Stroking your feline brings so much joy! Things become even more satisfying when the gorgeous ball of fur right in front of you starts purring as this means they’re happy and content… right? Yes, but there are also other numerous reasons why cats release this vibrating sound, and unfortunately, not all of them are blissful. Below you’ll find out why felines purr when they’re being petted.
1. They’re Happy And Relaxed
The most common reason your feline purrs is because she’s happy, relaxed, and content. If the purring happens while you’re petting your best friend, it’s only logical that it’s due to happiness. This is actually one of the ways that cats show love and affection. So the next time they jump in your lap and start releasing those soothing vibrations, enjoy the interaction, and know that your feline loves you.
However, this isn’t always the case, so you must look for other signs that they are in a happy state of mind. Thankfully, you’ll easily recognize when a feline is feeling blissful as they will be acting relaxed, lying on their back or their side, and have their eyes half-opened. Some other ways to know that you’re invited to pet your furry baby, aside from purring, is when a cat flops down in front of you, gives you a headbutt or a nudge if you stop petting them, or waves the tail gently from side to side.
If a cat is happy, the purring can also be accompanied by kneading, otherwise known as making biscuits. When your feline jumps on your lap and starts kneading your stomach or chest while purring, it’s another way to let you know they’re contended and showing affection. This means that she’s enjoying your petting session and that you should keep doing what you’re doing.
The thing is that most cats are picky when it comes to stroking them, and not all spots on their body are stroke-approved. The areas that every feline will gladly offer for petting are cheeks, under the chin, and on the top of their head between the ears. This is where their facial glands are located. These glands release pheromones that mark you as safe and as their territory.
If you’re a cat parent, you probably already know that their belly is sometimes forbidden territory. This is because it’s the most vulnerable part of their body, and that’s where all their vital organs are stored. So, a cat giving you her belly for petting is the ultimate sign of trust. Other areas that are not as preferred as the ears, chin, and cheeks are the tail and the back. So, if your feline is purring when your pet them, make sure you keep them happy and stick to the spots that they love being touched.
Also, look out for signs that your kitty doesn’t want to be petted anymore. Any cat can purr and be blissful, but things can change within seconds. Over petting can cause overstimulation. It’s a condition that causes discomfort for felines, and they switch their behavior from calm to nervous when you least expect it. This is actually pretty common, so I have got a whole separate paragraph on overstimulation down below so you can learn the signs and know when to take a break from petting.
2. They’re Overstimulated
As mentioned, although many cats purr when they are happy being petted, things can quickly change. Every cat has a limit that you should respect, and ensure you stop petting the second your cat gets anxious, starts biting, or scratching. Also, stroking cats on their back or other parts of their body where they don’t like to be touched can lead to the feline being aggressive.
Besides, not all cats want to be petted. They aren’t all sociable and friendly animals, and some of them will simply refuse to be stroked. In most cases, there is no need to be alarmed if your feline runs away when you want to pet her. It’s probably the way she is, and there’s not much you can do about it. But, if a cat is not a huge fan of petting but she lets you do it sometimes, it’s much more common for her to get overstimulated than a cat that loves cuddles.
Overstimulation can also be due to medical conditions. For example, when a cat is ill and feels pain, she doesn’t want to be touched and will be much more sensitive than usual. She will purr, but that isn’t a welcoming sign for you to stroke her. In this case, there are painful areas that make the cat act aggressively when you touch her.
You can easily spot an overstimulated feline so you can quickly learn when your cat has had enough. They will have their ears facing back, become tenser, have dilated pupils, and you’ll notice they don’t feel as comfortable as before. When these signs appear, you should stop petting your cat and leave her alone. If you don’t play by the rules, she will become irritated and potentially aggressive.
3. They Want Something
Those innocent eyes, cute meowing sounds, and loud purrs aren’t always as innocent as they appear… cats are also master manipulators! Sometimes your feline won’t be so eager to be petted but knows that by creating these adorable vibrations that you’re more likely to give them what they’re after. In other words, this vibrating sound is a way that cats can communicate their wants and needs to their owner.
What they want could be a range of different things. It can be attention, food, water, or a play session. You’ll likely be able to tell if they’re trying to communicate with you as they will also very likely meow alongside their purring. It won’t always be loud, demanding meow, but a short sound similar to a crying baby. Oh, the things these creatures do to have you wrapped up around their fingers!
If you listen carefully, you should also be able to hear whether your cat is purring because they are after something or not. A lot of research has gone into the types of meows and purrs cats make during different situations, and they figured out that purrs when cats are hungry and purrs when cats aren’t don’t sound the same. Did you know that the purring sounds that request food, attention, or water are called soliciting purrs? It fits right in and perfectly explains the situation.
People should be able to differentiate these two types of purrs very easily. Research shows that even people who aren’t pet owners could tell apart the different vibrating sounds! The high-pitched baby-like crying meow is meant to get to humans because regular meowing won’t always do the trick. As I said before, these stunning creatures are master manipulators!
If you think your cat is trying to communicate that they want something, you should do your best to work out what it is. You can then decide what to do – should you follow your cat’s requests or not? Most of the time, it depends on the situation.
A hungry cat or kitten will release those adorable meows, will wrap itself around your legs while purring, and will try to convince you that it’s time for another round of tasty kibble. Hungry and thirsty cats will also make their way to the bowls, so that will help you realize why the purring is happening all of a sudden. If it’s time for another meal, don’t hesitate to serve it. But, if the cat just ate, then you shouldn’t fall under the influence of their extortion techniques!
If your furry feline is bored and wants to play, they’ll find a way to convince you to participate. They’ll get very close to you, start purring, release that crying meow, and even move around your feet. You should read the signs, get the toys and spend some quality time with your best friend. A bored kitten has a lot of extra energy she needs to use somewhere. What better way to do it than have a playdate with the owner?
4. Mother-Cat Connection
Using purring as a form of communication is not solely reserved when communicating with humans. Kittens learn how to purr during their first few days of life. This vibrating sound is a part of their nature and a way for them to communicate with their mothers. It’s how they’d ask for food, show when they need affection, and receive the love they need.
Purring is especially important for kittens that are born blind or deaf. Moms will purr to let their kittens know where they are and to communicate with them. Purring helps them form a bond, and cats will continue doing it throughout their lives. Young cats and kittens also use this vibrating sound to let their mothers know they are okay. What’s even more impressive is that cat moms purr to call their kittens right next to them, then use that purring as a lullaby song to help the little ones fall asleep.
While felines may not talk, they use so many other forms of communication. If your feline is purring when near you, it might mean that she’s considering you to be their parent. As long as there aren’t any warning signs and the cat is relaxed, there is no need to worry about the purring. It’s just your parent-child bond becoming deeper – aww!
5. They Feel Safe
This one is very similar to a cat feeling relaxed and content, but your cat may also be purring as they feel safe. When felines get familiar with their owner, they eventually start to trust them. The feelings of love and happiness also make them feel safe in your arms.
When they are with you, your feline friend knows that predators can’t get to her, so she knows who to turn to when feeling stressed or uncomfortable. It can often happen during stressful events for cats, such as dogs barking outside or a thunderstorm. But, it can also occur while you’re lying in bed or just watching TV and your cat feels a little anxious. There are numerous stress-triggers in the environment for felines, most of which you won’t even think of.
So, if your cat gets in your face while you sleep, purring and trying to get some affection, it’s likely because they feel protected and safe in your presence. There will be no warning signs, biting, or scratching, just pure joy and the well-known vibrating sound.
6. They’re Giving Birth
Is your cat pregnant? If so, they may also be purring as they are going to give birth. Cats deliver their babies in three stages. During the first one, the feline usually becomes louder. She wants to socialize a lot more and becomes restless, moves around more frequently, and purrs. Not all cats purr before giving birth, but it’s a common symptom.
During this stage, your furry friend might also move around the room to find a suitable spot to deliver her babies. You should be supportive, stroke her gently, show love, and let her choose a birthing spot. Even if you already set up a birthing box and the cat decides another place, you should let her stay wherever she wants. This is a sensitive time, and you must not obstruct the process.
7. They Feel Stressed
Cats might not show it, but they can and do get stressed out. If you live with a feline, your job is to create a safe environment where they’ll feel safe and not threatened. Unfortunately, a range of stressors can make cats feel anxious. Some of the most common ones include moving to a new environment, new pets or new people in the home, or painful conditions or diseases, just to name a few!
When your cat feels stressed out, she will start purring. The purring vibrations have healing and calming powers. This is how your furry friend calms herself down and is part of her coping strategy when feeling pain and discomfort. You’ll easily recognize that the vibrating sounds don’t appear because of happiness or contentment as you can keep your eye peeled for other signs of stress.
Joyful cats thump their tails when lying down and then jump in your lap to cuddle or purr, but stressed cats will act completely differently. If you see a cat sleeping more than usual, having low energy levels, refusing to eat or drink, or not being the happy, fun feline that wants to play, you should schedule a vet visit. These signs might mean that your cat is stressed and using purring as a coping mechanism.
Unfortunately, many situations can be stressful for cats, so you should do your best to provide a safe home space. To help prevent your cat from feeling stressed out, you want to make a calming home environment and introduce any changes gradually. For example, never introduce a new cat or dog right away. In most cases, you should keep the pets in separate rooms and introduce them step by step. First, let them get familiar with each other’s smells, and wait before the actual physical contact happens.
8. They’re Healing
It’s scientifically proven that purring has healing power, and it’s not only for felines but for humans too. Because of this, it’s often referred to as a natural healing mechanism for cats and people. If a cat is trying to heal herself, it will purr without being petted.
This healing power is all to do with the frequency of purring, which sits somewhere between 25 and 150 Hz. According to studies, vibrations between 25 and 50 Hz can have a positive healing effect on bones, while vibrations over 100 Hz can positively affect soft tissues. Additionally, when cats purr they release endorphins, which are chemicals that the body uses to relieve pain and stress.
It’s imperative to recognize when a cat is distressed and in pain. The sooner you know why the purring happens, the faster you’ll learn how to treat the condition. If you notice that your cat has been purring without being stroked, isn’t acting as joyful as usual, shows signs of limping, is more aggressive and hissing, or is hiding from you and wants to be alone, is hissing, you should suspect that she’s struggling with an illness.
When any of these symptoms show up you should get in touch with your vet and schedule an appointment to figure out the exact reason. Felines are extremely good at hiding their pain, and some of the conditions they’re struggling with can be life-threatening. That’s why timely diagnosis is important and can save the life of your fur baby.
How Can People Benefit From Purring?
Purring is undeniably adorable and we love listening to our kitties purring, especially when it is from a lovely petting session. However, did you know what people can also benefit from their felines purring?
It’s true! A lot of research has gone into the healing benefits of these vibrations, and some studies suggest that the vibrations that cats release can:
- Lower your blood pressure
- Help you fight swelling faster
- Help with muscle, tendon, joint pain
- Stimulate bone growth and bone healing
- Ease your breathing
- Lower the risk of a heart disease
- Lower your stress levels
Yes, you can throw all these benefits right in the face of all your friends that don’t like cats and claim that dogs are much better. Who knew that you have a natural healing mechanism at home that can actually help you go through difficult and painful periods?
Many cat parents have noticed that their cat loves laying right on their leg or arm when they’re experiencing joint pain. It happens because your faithful feline is trying to heal you with its vibrating powers. What more could you ask for?
What If My Cat Doesn’t Purr?
Now that I’ve answered the question ‘Why do cats purr when you pet them?’, some cat owners will be worried if their beloved feline is normal because she doesn’t purr. With cats, there is nothing black and white. They are truly fascinating creatures, and to every rule, there is an exception. So, if your cat rarely purrs, there is no need to be alarmed.
A cat that doesn’t purr isn’t unhappy. On the contrary, the feline can be very content – she’ll just find other ways to show it. Not all cats communicate the same, and yours might use other signs to show you that’s she loves you, needs food, or wants to play. The fact that she rarely purrs shouldn’t worry you because if there’s anything wrong, you’ll probably notice it right away through other signs and symptoms.
Something else to keep in mind is that all cats purr differently. If you haven’t heard your furry baby purring, you should check her neck to see if it’s vibrating. You might be surprised to feel a trembling sensation even if you can’t audibly hear a noise at all. Some cats will be louder, others very quiet. As a general rule, domesticated felines are more likely to purr, while feral cats are much quieter.
Interestingly, some will even completely abandon their purring habit when they become adult cats. As purring is essential for mother-kitten communication, some cats will cease purring when they leave home and no longer have to communicate with their mom. However, indoor cats want to communicate with their humans by purring, so that might be one reason they vibrate more often than strays.
Knowing how lovingly complicated these creatures are, there is no simple answer to any question related to cat behavior. Feline purring is often associated with comfort and happiness. This is not only the most adorable sound, but felines look so peaceful and zen while they’re vibrating. They could also be purring as they feel completely safe with you.
However, as you read previously, it’s not always a sign that your furry baby is happy. Although in most cases, a cat will purr when being stroked, you should be careful not to pass any limits. Feline overstimulation is a thing, and you should be aware of the warning signs that say you should stop petting. Other reasons why a feline might be purring include that she is trying to communicate that she wants something from you. She may also be giving birth, feels stressed out, or is healing from pain or illness.
Figuring out what the purring means is essential in case you need to get in touch with a vet. Some illnesses should be treated as soon as possible, meaning that you should be looking for other signs. Doing what’s best for your cat means knowing her behavior and knowing when something’s wrong. And, hopefully, this guide has made that a little easier.
I loved this article. Very informative.
Stephanie Burnett says
Your helpful information is exactly what I’ve been trying to explain to my 13 year old granddaughter who continues to claim that she knows what my cat likes! She refuses to stop doing the things that you discussed! Even a trip to the Veterinarian, who told her the exact same thing she still continues to do things to my cat that causes him to run from her every time she comes into the room! She will try to force him to love her, instead he hates her, growls at her, trys to bite and scratch her, and ultimately he’ll hiss at her all while I continue to tell her to put him down and leave him alone!!!