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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.


We usually think of purrs as a sign of contentment and general well-being, and they often are. (For instance, as I sit at my computer, I have a cat purring away next to me, occasionally head bumping my arm — which I’ll conveniently use as an excuse for any typos that I might make.) But I’ve also heard cats purr when they are extremely ill or suffering from terrible injuries.


So, why would cats purr when they are happy as well as when they are in pain?


Here’s my as of yet untested theory: A cat’s purr is a complex emotional signal that is designed to communicate with other cats. Yes, of course, they use it to communicate with us as well, but cats really are not all that domesticated. Most of their behaviors are pretty unadulterated by human contact. I would be willing to bet that there are subtleties to a cat’s purr that we thick-headed humans are simply incapable of deciphering.


The science behind the purr is as follows. Purrs occur on both the inhale and exhale at frequencies between 25 and 150 Hz (meaning that the vocal cords are vibrating this many times per second). Good enough, but that doesn’t really help answer the "why" question.


Let’s look at a human example. We can describe all smiles in simple anatomical and physiological terms, but individually they can indicate many different emotional states: happiness, anxiety, condescension, a non verbal "hello," even a grimace of pain can look an awful lot like a smile. An alien species probably would not be able to tell the difference between these subtle variations of a smile, but other human beings certainly can. I’m sure cats can tell the difference between a purr of contentment and a purr of misery.


As an interesting aside, scientists have found that vibrations in the 25 to 150 Hz range have healing properties and can improve bone density (in humans). Perhaps cats purr when they are sick as a form of therapy. I know that being in proximity to a purring cat, at least one that I assume is purring out of happiness, sure improves my mood. Maybe some of those "good vibrations" can actually making us healthier too.


Dr. Jennifer Coates

Pic of the day: Trogdor is Content by Martin Cathrae

Cat purring, why do cats purr, purring when happy, purring when hurt, purring when unhappy, healing properties of purr

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  • Purring
    06/13/2011 07:07am

    I have a couple of kitties that are beyond terrified of trips to the vet and they purr constantly. I've also had critically ill kitties purr when they're in multiple organ failure.

    I've always thought they're trying to comfort themselves. Maybe they're trying to comfort me.

  • 06/13/2011 08:24pm

    Mr. Kitty purrs very hard in the morning, when he's anxious to be fed. Is that a purr of anticipation, or to quiet his stomach? For the record, he doesn't like to be petted before breakfast, and has been known to bite (without breaking skin) then go back to purring.

  • Purring is so soothing!
    06/22/2011 10:01pm

    I have been interested in this topic for a couple of years now, ever since reading on the internet that someone was trying to get a grant to study the effect of purring on healing bone breaks. Since I had just had a not-so-great bone density scan, it made me wonder if in addition to the "good vibes" we get from our furry companions they could actually help counteract osteoporosis!

    Well, about a year later two kitties adopted me. I love cuddling them at the end of a stressful day, and I know they make me calmer--purrs or no purrs. Later this year, I should have another dexascan. I am curious to see if there has been any improvement in my numbers! (If so, I hope to write about it on my blog.) But even if there hasn't been, I'm glad my furbabies came into my life.

  • Purring out of fear?
    07/31/2014 11:22am

    I took in a feral kitten once who had an extreme fear of humans and would scratch and hiss at me when I would try to pick her up. But once I did, and cradled her in my arms, she would purr so loud you could hear her across the room. It was very confusing -- she hated to be approached and picked up, but would purr seemingly contentedly once I had her in my arms. At the time, it didn't dawn on me that cats would purr for any reason other than being happy and contented, but I now believe she was purring to try to calm herself from her extreme fear.

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