Meowing is the most common sound that cats make, but there’s another rumble that they’re commonly associated with too: purring. How do cats purr? According to researcher Karen McComb, a mammal-communications expert at the University of Sussex in the U.K., most animals make throat-based sounds using only their vocal folds, but cats can vibrate the muscles underneath their vocal folds very slowly during inhalation and exhalation, which produces the rumbling purr.
Cats often purr to communicate their emotions since, unlike humans, they’re facial expressions aren’t as effective at giving away how they feel (even though their facial expressions are super cute!). However, when cats purr, it’s similar to a person’s facial expression in that their purr will give you context clues to make an informed guess on how they’re feeling in the current moment. While most cats purr when they’re content, it is thought that purrs have self-healing and certainly self-soothing properties. As Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia, explained, “You can have cats that are happy and content purring, but also a cat that’s injured or sick will purr.” How can you tell if it’s a joyful purr you’re hearing? Here are some good indicators to find out.
“I’m happy!” purr
If your cat is purring and looks relaxed, it’s a sign that they’re happy. Sometimes this comes in the form of their body language, such as when you see your cat on their back, or with its eyes half-closed in blissful contentment, or if their tail is mostly still. This can also be true if your cat is purring while soaking up some sun in the windowsill, or if you’ve just begun to pet your cat and hear that lovely little rumble. Purring usually means that your cat is a very happy furball, would probably share catnip with you and hug you for being such an excellent human companion.
“I’m in pain” purr
Many cats purr when they’re in pain as a way for the cat to soothe itself, similar to a child sucking their thumb. Some research suggests that purring actually helps cats get better faster. Purring causes vibrations within a cat’s body, which can help ease their breathing, lessen their pain or swelling, build muscle and repair tendons, and even heal bones and wounds.
“Hey Mom! I’m doing okay!” purr
If your cat is just a kitten, it may be purring for its mom. When kittens are only a few days old, they purr to let their mothers know where they are and that they’re doing okay. Purring is also a way for young kittens to be able to guide themselves to their mom’s body when they want their first meals. When kittens nurse, they can’t meow quite yet, so they show their contentment by purring, and their moms purr back to communicate safety and comfort. When cats are young, purring is also a way for kittens to bond with their moms. Similar to a mom singing a lullaby to their child, mother cats often purr alongside their young. If your kitten is a newborn, they may be purring to find her mom, or simply seeking sustenance and safety. Make sure that your kitten is well-fed, well-cuddled, and kept warm and cozy.
“I’m hungry! Feed me!” purr
McComb found that cats purr differently depending on whether they’re hungry or not. McComb found that the purr cats make when they’re ready to eat is combined with a (sometimes unpleasant) cry or mew, similar to the distress of a human baby’s cry. This is how cats communicate that they’re hungry, and can be easily distinguished from their regularly purring or meowing because of the added mewing sound. So, if your cat is purring and mewing, it’s the equivalent of your stomach rumbling, and it’s time to treat your furry friend to a nice bowl of tasty food.
Want to make your cat’s motor run? Use some Paw Points® to get them a fun little toy, like this Catnip Toy
Sure, your cat may not speak English, but she definitely knows how to communicate. It’s up to you to learn how to interpret her various cute sounds — and her body language.
Once you understand CatSpeak 101, you’ll know when she’s hungry, when she’s playful — and when she needs some “me” time.
- Meow: This complex call is generally associated with greetings “hello” or care-seeking events:1 “feed me,” “pet me,” “let me out,” etc. Interestingly, cats don’t meow to other cats — except for baby cats (infant kittens). Blind and deaf at birth,2 baby cats meow to get their mother’s attention (mostly because they’re hungry or cold).
Domestic cats understood that this was also a good way to get the attention of their people. There are even specific meows for “Feed me, human!,” “Play with me, human!” and “Let me out, human!”
- Purr: We think this is probably the best sound in the world. Generally, the soft rhythmic noise means “I’m so happy right now” or “Life is great, isn’t it? I’m full of contentment.”
Since purring is thought to also have self-soothing and healing properties for cats, purring might also be used if a cat is in pain. Want to know more about why cats purr? Read all about this lovely and comforting sound.
- Hiss: This is a defensive vocalization that translates into “I’m worried, back off” or “I’m scared, stop what you are doing.”1 This is your second-to-last warning, often followed by a growl if things get scary for the cat.
- Growl:This means “back off” or “stop what you are doing.”3 This is often your last warning before Attack Cat launches at you with claws and teeth.
- Trill: This is a sweet, high-pitched sound that translates to “Hello! I’m so glad to see you. Gimme a little pet,”4 often followed by rubbing against your leg and arching up for a nice petting. Cats will greet both their humans and other cats in this affectionate way.
- Chatter: This chattering of the teeth is usually associated with hunting, often seen when a cat sees prey but can’t get to it — such as looking at a bird out a window.1 It probably means “I’m so excited but I’m also frustrated.”
- Yowl: We think this might be one of the worst sounds in the world. It means either that a cat is in pain, or in unfixed cats, calling (loudly) for some sexy time.1 An easy way to fix this and be a responsible cat parent? Fix your cat.
- Tail up: “Hi there! I’m happy, confident and comfortable.”5
- Slow blink: You’ll see this often as your cat gazes into your eyes. It’s the equivalent of a kitty kiss, and it means “I love being around you.”6
- Swat: “Quit annoying me.” This active strike with the front feet may have the claws exposed or shielded depending upon how strongly the cat wants to relay the message.7
- Ears flattened against the head: “I’m scared/angry/upset.” Even though Kitty may be frightened, she’s also angry, 8 so best to give her some space.
- Tail and back arched: Think of this as the Halloween Cat Posture. It means “I’m scared/defensive/unpleasantly surprised.” 8
- Tail tucked: “I’m uncomfortable and unsure.”9
- Tail fluffed/bristled: When all the tail hair fluffs up and makes the tail look like a feather duster. This means “I’m scared, upset and unpleasantly surprised.”10
- Roll over: This one’s a tricky move. Sometimes this is an invitation to rub the belly or chest (if you know your cat well), but it’s often a defensive posture that allows Kitty to give you a beatdown with all twenty claws. Some cats like to use their cute bellies as a lure…and then attack! Don’t fall for the cuteness unless you know your cat well enough to know when she wants a genuine belly rub or when it’s just a sneaky ruse.11
- Mouth ajar, eyes slightly closed: Does your cat just look like it smelled something bad or is about to sneeze? Welcome to the Flehmen Response. This is when the mouth is held half open for an extended period after the cat has investigated an item/scent.1
- Rubbing against furniture or you: Basically, rubbing is a way a happy cat marks her territory. As in “This couch is mine. This table is mine. This human is mine.” So, the cat is basically owning you — which means she loves you (usually more than she loves the table).12
- Head butts: Nope, not the violent type of head butt that results in brain injury. This is instead a happy greeting, a gesture of love, a meeting of the minds as it were.13 Want to get a head butt from a fuzzy feline? Make your hand into a fist, curled fingers down, and extend it slowly toward the cat. If the cat is happy and friendly feeling, you’ll get a head butt to the fist.
Want to give your favorite feline something to purr about? Grab her a fun toy in the Paw Points® catalog. Of course, you need to be a Paw Points® member and have enough points, but don’t worry, those points add up fast.
And if you want to give homeless cats a reason to purr, you can donate points to your favorite shelter.
1. Cat chat: Understanding feline language. (n.d.). https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/cat-chat-understanding-feline-language
2. Shaw H. (n.d.). Kitten development: Understanding a kitten’s major growth milestones. https://www.petmd.com/cat/care/kitten-development-understanding-kittens-major-growth-milestones
3. Causes of sudden aggression in cats. (n.d.). https://www.petmd.com/cat/behavior/causes-sudden-aggression-cats
4. Heckler A. (n.d.). Here’s why some cats trill (and some don’t). https://en.thecatsociety.org/tips-and-advice/59edf99ccbaca401820a169a-here-s-why-some-cats-trill-and-some-don-t.html
5. Voltolina V. (n.d.). Cat facts: What does it mean when a cat wags its tail? https://www.petmd.com/cat/behavior/evr_ct_what-does-it-mean-when-a-cat-wags-tail
6. Sung W. (2015). Why does my cat . . . blink slowly at me? http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/why-does-my-cat-blink-slowly-at-me
7. Overstimulation in cats. (n.d.). http://www.treehouseanimals.org/site/PageServer?pagename=caring_ccg_overstimulation
8. Feline behavior problems: Aggression. (2016). https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-behavior-problems-aggression
9. Sung W. (2018). Cat language 101: How do cats talk to each other. https://www.petmd.com/news/view/cat-language-101-how-do-cats-talk-each-other-37620
10. Becker M. (2015). 5 keys to decoding your cat’s body language. http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/5-keys-to-decoding-your-cats-body-language
11. Waggener N. (2018). What does it mean when my cat shows its belly? https://www.southbostonanimalhospital.com/blog/what-does-it-mean-when-my-cat-shows-its-belly
12. Why does my cat rub against . . . everything? (2018). https://www.catonsvillecatclinic.com/holmes-corner/why-does-my-cat-rub-againsteverything/
13. Bailey S. (2011). Butting heads with your cats. http://felinedocs.com/dr-steven-bailey/butting-heads-with-your-cats/