Cats make a lot of different noises, between meowing, hissing, and screeching. Since they cannot speak, it is their way of communicating with you. Purring is the sound pet owners most often associate with a happy cat but does purring always signal an affectionate kitty?
To form the audible noise that is a purr, a cat’s brain must make the first move. By sending a signal to the laryngeal muscles in the voice box, the muscles open like a valve to allow air flow past the cat’s voice box. This causes that little rumbling sound that we know as purring.
Fun fact: air flow through the larynx can happen as a cat both inhales and exhales. This is why cats can seemingly purr forever!
The most common purr is the one we associate with a happy or relaxed cat. Sure they like to purr when they’re receiving a scratch behind the ears or sitting in a sunny patch on the floor but purring can also be a sign of your cat communicating other feelings.
Unfortunately, purring can also be a sign of stress or pain. Some scientists believe that purring during these times is a way of cats calming themselves. In contrast, frightened cats may purr to signal that they are peaceful and not going to attack. This purr is seen particularly in older cats approaching younger cats to signal that they come in peace.
The best way to decipher between a happy and unhappy cat purr is by looking at their body language. Flattened ears and tail flicking or wagging is a sign that your cat is stressed or angry. Upright ears and tail, combined with wide eyes are a sign of playfulness and curiosity. Eye contact with slow blinking and a curled tail indicates that a cat is calm and adores you.
Cats will also purr when they are hungry. This stems from an instinct they had as a kitten. Since kittens cannot drink milk and meow at the same time, purring is a way of communicating and bonding with its mother. This is why little mittens may be purring loudly as you’re filling up the food bowl.
Whether it’s a loud or soft purr, your cat is communicating with you. By taking into account its body language and environment, you will be able to correctly interpret whether your cat’s communication efforts are positive or negative. If you feel your cat is purring out of pain, consult a veterinarian. Otherwise, a happy purr means that you’re doing a great job of caring for and bonding with your cat.