Kittens learn how to purr when they are just a few days old, and the behavior extends into adulthood as a way to communicate their needs to their owner.

If you're a cat owner, you know that few things compare to the gentle hum and vibrations of your furry companion purring. As one of the hallmarks of a happy cat, felines often purr when they're being pet, cuddling, or spending time socializing with other animals. But beyond contentment, there are several reasons why cats purr, and some of them may surprise you.

Natural Instinct

Just as they have natural hunting instincts, cats are born to purr. "Kittens learn to purr when they are just a couple of days old," says Hyunmin Kim, director of community medicine at The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The action starts in a cat's brain, which signals movement of the laryngeal muscles, causing the glottis to open and close. This action leads to separation of the vocal chords and a purr sound as air hits the vibrating muscles. Cats' genetic makeup includes the necessary body parts for them to be able to purr whenever they need to communicate with their mother, heal their injuries, or exhibit their contentment.


Although purring is widely associated with happiness, the action may also be a sign of stress. It's believed that felines use the humming as a way to help soothe themselves during stressful situations. "The vibrations can be relaxing, just like a vibrating chair can help soothe an infant," says Carly Fox, DVM, senior veterinarian at Schwarzman Animal Medical Center. "It's also been observed that other cats come and purr around a hurt or sick cat companion to help soothe them." 

Happy Bengal cat loves being stroked by woman's hand under chin.


Purring is also a form of non-verbal communication. "Purring allows deaf and blind newborn kittens to start communicating with their mom and litter mates," says Kim. Kittens will signal to their mother when they're hungry or need attention, making it an important survival instinct when they are at their most vulnerable. This instinct then carries into adulthood. "Cats purr to communicate their needs and mood to each other, to humans and to other animals as well," says Dr. Fox. "A cat can purr to another animal to seem unthreatening and to establish subservience."


It's true that cats will purr when they are happy and content. Since purring is a soothing sound they've used since they were kittens, a contented adult cat will engage in some purring when they are relaxed and happy around their owner. This may occur when your furry friend is either sleeping in your lap or enjoying your gentle petting.

Internal Healing

But perhaps the most impressive use of purring is its healing abilities. "Purring results in low frequency vibrations at 25 and 150 Hertz and is thought to be a natural healing mechanism," says Kim. "Purring can help repair bones, heal wounds, and even relieve pain."


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