It’s easy to assume that cats purr because they’re happy. After all, when your kitty contentedly curls up in your lap for some well-deserved scratches and rubs, she’s obviously one happy feline.
However, cats also purr when they’re frightened or feel threatened, such as during a visit to the vet.
Where the Purr Comes From
A cat’s purr begins in its brain. A repetitive neural oscillator sends messages to the laryngeal muscles, causing them to twitch at a rate of 25 to 150 vibrations per second. This causes the vocal cords to separate when the cat inhales and exhales, producing a purr.
But not all cats can purr. Domestic cats, some wild cats, and their relatives—civets, genets and mongooses—purr, as do hyenas, raccoons, and guinea pigs. However, cats that purr can’t roar, and cats that roar can’t purr because the structures surrounding roaring cats’ larynxes aren’t stiff enough to allow purring.
Roaring cats evolved this way for good reason. These cats move around a lot to catch prey, so they developed their roar to protect their prides and their territory. Purring cats, on the other hand, are smaller and more likely to be loners that don’t have to compete with each other for prey. They use scent to mark territory and don’t need a far-reaching way to communicate.
Purring to Communicate
Your cat may also purr to communicate with you. According to researchers at the University of Sussex, domestic cats can hide a distressed cry within their purrs, appealing to human’s nurturing instincts.
The team examined the sound spectrum of 10 cats’ purrs and found an unusual peak in the 220- to 520-hertz frequency range embedded in the lower frequencies of the usual purr. Babies’ cries have a similar frequency range at 300 to 600 hertz.
Purring for Health
Cats’ purrs are more than simply a way to communicate though. Scientists like Elizabeth von Muggenthaler, a bioacoustics researcher, believe that cats also purr to heal themselves.
In addition to repairing bones, there’s also evidence that the series of vibrations caused by purring can repair muscles and tendons, ease breathing, and reduce pain and swelling.
Purring isn’t just good for cats though—it’s also healthy for cat owners. Studies show that cats do a better job of relieving stress and lowering blood pressure than other pets. In fact, a study at the University of Minnesota Stroke Center found that cat owners were significantly less likely to suffer from myocardial infarctions and strokes than non-cat owners—and purring might play a role in that