Cat Purrs 101 : From Pleasure to Pain

purring-cat-odin-garden-pleasure-pain

People often assume a purring cat is a happy cat but that isn’t always true. Many years ago, I used to think purring equaled happiness until I came across a severely injured cat hit by a car. Despite broken bones and internal injuries that cat purred. It turned everything I thought I knew about cats upside down. If happy cats purred and injured cats purred, what else was purring used for?

It begins with mother cats or queens who purr during and after giving birth. The mom’s purring has two functions 1) the purring during birth is self-soothing, healing and analgesic. Scientists has proven the frequencies found in a cat’s purr can help heal injuries to bones, muscle, joints, tendons and ligament while providing general pain relief. 2) Purrs are the first form of communication between mothers and kittens signalling, “Here I am,” since newborn kittens are blind. It begins a lifelong form of communication announcing, “here I am” in many circumstances from the contented purr while petting a cat to the “here I am but don’t hurt me” purr of a frightened or nervous cat being picked up by a stranger, including a vet. Just as cats are masters of hiding pain, they’re also deceptive in hiding the meaning of their purrs. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism.

There are as many different kinds purrs as there are cats. Some cats purr so softly it’s inaudible to human ears. If you think you have one of those quiet ones, try stroking your cat while putting your ear next to their neck and listen for vibrations. Other cats purr so loudly they sound like a Ferrari engine.

When my cats Merlin and his sister Coco arrived in their new home, I thought I’d go deaf from stereo purring. They’d come straight from the Humane Society after a tumultuous first year and four different homes. They knew they’d finally found their forever home and draped their bodies over my head and ears. I quickly learned the “hello, I’m here” purr message only lasted a few minutes and then everyone could sleep after that.

Cats don’t purr non-stop for hours. It takes energy to purr. If you sit with a purring cat, they tend to purr while you stroke them, they stop after a few minutes if you stop, but begin to purr again if you stroke then again.

If purring can signal pleasure or pain, how can you tell the difference?

Technically, you can’t. The mechanism for creating any purr is the same. It begins in the brain which sends rhythmic, neural messages to the laryngeal muscles in the throat alternating with the diaphragm at the rate of 25 to 150 vibrations per second (Hz). This building up and releasing of air movement separates the vocal cords to create the distinct purring sound during both inhalation and exhalation.

The only way to decipher the difference between a pleasure and pain purr is to look for other clues from body language to behavior. It could be as subtle as licking their lips frequently signalling gum or dental issues, or nausea. The tail could be twitching in agitation or they might be going up the stairs more slowly.

The greatest gift we can give our pets is to learn to observe their behavior for subtle changes. Are the eating or drinking more or less? Are there changes in their appearance i.e. over-grooming or no grooming? Are they being more aggressive, or antisocial lately? Uses all your senses to observe: look, listen, touch, smell and sense or intuit. Gaze softly into their eyes and ask them, “How are you feeling?” It up to us to play detective. It’s essentially what all animal behaviorists do. I believe most pet guardians are more intuitive than they let on. How many times have you had a sense something didn’t feel right? Trust your gut, it’s rarely wrong.

Sadly, the busier our lives are, the less time we spend with our pets. Plunk down the food bowl, scoop the litter, a quick pat and we’re out the door. By taking the time to know what normal, happy purring sounds like, you’ll be better equipped to recognize painful purring. Observing takes time but isn’t hearing the purr of contentment worth it?

 

26 Comments

on “Cat Purrs 101 : From Pleasure to Pain
26 Comments on “Cat Purrs 101 : From Pleasure to Pain
  1. My cat purrs when she jumps on me and i stroke her but she coughs now when purring. Ive had her to vets twice. Why would she cough whilst purring?

  2. Fascinating article. I found the link because my 14-year-old tabby is purring loudly about 12 feet away from me as he relaxes and I was wondering if he was content or meditating. Both, I guess. Good to know.

  3. Hi Layla,

    Super interesting purr facts.

    Yes, I was also surprised way back when as I first learned that purring serves more than one function and can indicate more than just the happy emotional state.

    I learned – much as you did – that it can indicate fear or pain. I saw an injured cat in the E.R. and asked the vet why it was purring. He explained a part of what you’ve explained. He said the cat was scared and in pain. That really surprised me.

    Interesting to hear about the functions as well – healing and signaling to the new born kittens that mother is here.

    I agree that it’s important to tune into the subtle things in cat world to see what is going on. Things aren’t always apparent.

    =^..^= Hairless Cat Girl =^..^=
    Hairless Cat recently posted…Hairless Cat Month

  4. I know for a fact that Katie is a stress purrer. Sure, she purrs when content and enjoying affection. But some of her loudest purrs are at the v-e-t. And we’re talking about a cat who’s file has been “flagged.” Something about cantankerous. I’d say downright vicious!
    ; ) Glogirly

  5. I’ve known for a while cats purred when injured. I suspected there was a reason for it, and part of the reason was self comforting and maybe even healing, so it was nice to read that is in fact true! I love a nice loud purr. For years I had a loud purrer who slept next to my head. i miss his purr as the cats I have now all have softer purrs.
    Oui Oui recently posted…Kitty Kartoons

  6. The purr is yet another wonderful thing that only felines can do. I’ve know for years that purring didn’t always equate to happiness etc. but I did not know about the healing power of the purr. Lets face it cats are the most incredible,mystical,magical creatures there are. With the utmost respect and love for felines everywhere. Mom Kat
    And loud,happy purrs from Skeeter and Izzy >^–^< puuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrr

  7. What I find so interesting is to come up on Abby as she is sleeping (she snores) and I begin to pet her. It’s almost immediate the purrs. She is responding to me (as she is “my” cat — she is a 1 person cat) once I stop petting her she stops purring. It always makes me smile and of course she gets lots of cooing from me while she purrs so I know it’s a back and forth we are sharing with each other. BTW she never lifts her head she stays “asleep” through this entire process.

    purrs
    >^,,^<
    ♥Abby♥Boo♥Ping♥Jinx♥Grace♥
    Abby recently posted…Avatar

  8. An excellent post. I’ve known about purring for many years. The vet’s visits were the giveaway as I knew my cat was not a happy puss, yet he was purring very loudly. Then the vet told me!

    Austin has one of the loudest contented purrs I’ve ever heard. Must measure it one of these days :)
    CATachresis recently posted…Jubilee Lunch?

  9. Great post. My first cat taught me all about the different kinds of purrs. What I learned from him is right in sync with your post. Thanks so much for sharing. Purrs are awesome! \\\^-^///

  10. I learned about various needs of purring through experience. I found an injured cat which always purred before and after the injury. At first I though she was young and learned she was over 10 years old. Jasmine had severe stomatitis. But this is a importaant posting and lesson to watch other signs. My one cat, Johnny Walker, purrs but then his tail starts to swish. He likes to be petted for a few seconds–he’s allowing you–but then he wants you to say thank you with a treat. Otherwise he starts biting, or nibbling.

    Having a pet and cat is a responsibility. As the blogger recommends, please spend a few minutes with your pet, more than changing litter and tapping on head for greeting and exiting the front door. Getting to know your cat and his/her behavior will strengthen that bond and possibly save his life when you recognize something is amiss.
    Christine Michaels recently posted…Evie travels well and loves to accessorize

  11. What a wonderful post – such fascinating information! I remember I had one kitty who did not start purring until she was 7 years old. It came out of nowhere and you could tell she was as pleased as punch with this new found way to communicate with me when I pet her!

  12. Wonderful post Layla – it is a fascinating subject and I remember I had one cat who did not start purring until she was 7 years old! It just came out of nowhere and you could tell that she was pleased as punch to share that method of communication with me when I pet her!

  13. Wonderful post! I didn’t learn til a number of years ago that purring does not always equate to pleasure.

    Being a “bi-petual” household it is much easier to keep track of how our dog is feeling than our cat. Cats have a way of making themselves scarce when they aren’t feeling well which can also be a sign, and makes it harder to keep up on daily condition changes.
    Caren Gittleman recently posted…YouTube Tuesday- Do YOU Want DINNER?????

  14. I am a loud purrer. Ichiro, for all his noisiness doesn’t make a sound when he purrs (or only the smallest one). I think cats purr when they are nervous too-not just when they are in pain. We had one cat who would purr up a storm at the vet. He wasn’t in any discomfort but he was nervous so he purred (and they would have to turn the water faucet on it to quiet him down to listen to his heart!)
    Cheysuli recently posted…Tabby Tuesday

  15. I have really learned to watch all the signs my pets give especially since I have two that are seniors. I love a cats purr it’s so soothing to me. I have one I recued from outside and he has the loudest purr I have heard. All you have to do is say his name and he purrs. LOL. Enjoyed your post and the cute picture of Odin.

  16. We once had a young cat at the clinic I worked at whose purr literally saved his life. He had been hit by a car and was severely injured. The vet was getting ready to euthanize him when he raised his head, looked straight into her eyes, and started to purr. Needless to say, she couldn’t go through with it. After several surgeries and a long recuperation period, he went home to live with her for seventeen more years.
    Ingrid King recently posted…Maddie’s Fund helps San Francisco Bay area cats find homes this weekend

  17. So much good info. I have read that a sleeping cat helps a person sleep deeper, and I think that’s true for a purring cat. The cat’s breathing syncs with our deeper breathing registers.

    Ched! Bed time. Please.
    Kathryn recently posted…Table of Contents

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