Categories: purring

“Inappropriate Purring” – Incorrect Terminology

The phrase “inappropriate purring” has been coined by a writer on a website1 about pets. For me, this terminology is misleading and incorrect. The writer of the article that I’m referring to explains that as purring is normally associated with contented cats, when a cat purrs at times of sickness, injury or stress the purring is known as “inappropriate”. This cannot be correct.

Cat’s purr heals

The word “inappropriate” means “not suitable or proper in the circumstances”.

When a cat purrs under certain circumstances it is entirely natural and normal and therefore it must be appropriate. In addition, it is not, in truth, satisfactory to say a purring cat is a contented cat and that we normally associate purring with contentedness. Or at least we should not. It is a narrow-minded viewpoint.

Observations of purring cats has revealed that when cats are in great pain, in labour, injured or even dying they often purr loud and strong. Clearly these cats are not contented. Therefore “contentment is by no means the sole condition for purring”.

I will explain by further quoting Dr Desmond Morris in his excellent book Cat Watching:

“A more precise explanation, which fits all cases, is that purring signals a friendly social mood, and it can be given as a signal to, say, a vet from an injured cat indicating the need for friendship, or as a signal to an owner, saying thank you for friendship given.”

That is the reason for purring. This is the precise reason for purring and on every occasion, as mentioned, it is entirely appropriate because the explanation naturally covers all the circumstances under which purring might occur. The cat is doing what he or she feels she has to do under each set of circumstances as dictated by evolution and emotions.

I won’t go on. I just feel that people should be wary about creating new terminology with respect to cat behaviour as it does not help to demystify it, quite the contrary. It’s important that everybody who owns a cat understands the basics of cat behaviour as it can only benefit the cat and the owner alike.

There are still far too many cats being abandoned because the owner misunderstands her/his cat and the abandonment is for “behavioural reasons”. This should never be a reason to abandon a cat and it almost invariably means that the person has failed to understand cat behaviour adequately in order to properly care for his/her cat.

P.S. The author also writes that purring helps the cat by soothing him/her. That may be the case indirectly but the cat is not purring because the sound is soothing to her/him. Also the author says that purring partly blocks out outside sounds and stimuli such as fireworks which helps de-stress the cat. I am unsure that this is true. It does not fit in with the definition and explanation for purring as provided by Dr Desmond Morris and I’d rank him as the most knowledgeable on this subject.


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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

View Comments

  • My sister's elderly cat Kobe recently passed away. She called me from work and asked if I would check in him as she was very worried about him. I went up and found him in distress huddled in the bathtub wailing. I grabbed a blanket, wrapped him in it and put him on my lap to get him warm. He slept then until I had to leave to teach a couple K5 music classes at my morning school. I spent all of my very long break between schools holding him while searching for home euthanasia services on my iPhone. He purred then. I could feel the vibration against my leg. I think he was comforting himself. He was awake and alert and purring, but from the way he was sitting he seemed to be in pain. So perhaps the purr was to help decrease the pain or perhaps it was a thank you to me, for giving him a warm lap and getting him out of the bathtub when he was confused. I don't know how he had even gotten in there as his back leg seemed to not be totally under his control. I thought at the time he had hurt it but now I think he had a stroke. We spent a lot of time holding him before the end but he never purred again and he expired three minutes before the euthanasia vet arrived. I wish Jen could have experienced his last purr, but she was working at the time. The purr comforted me. Not because I thought he was content. He was confused and in pain. It just was comforting to feel that vibration against my leg.

  • Cats purr for a plethora of different of reasons. saying that he/she purrs to block undesirable noises is like saying a dog barks to achieve the same effect-to block out sounds it dislikes?

    Also, just because a dog wags it's tail, does not always mean he is in a good mood. the animal may be injured and afraid.And people in the know will tell you that a sick or distressed often purrs. this is part of their makeup; their voice.
    Eight out of ten cats will begin purring at the vets. office, & most are not happy or look forward to their next visit. Again-this behavior doesn't mean an animal isn't grateful for compassionate and attentive medical care.


  • I must recommend "The Great Purr" by Catherine Holm. It tells the "real" reason cats purr, communicated to us by cats. You may feel a resonance with this tale, as a window a world that we don't understand, ours and theirs.

    I would love to see this made into a film, and I've seen other reviews that say the same thing. This could be a huge money maker if done by a famous and savvy producer. A percentage of the funds could be used to help support shelters.

    I'm in search of producers that I could pitch this story to.
    It's time to recognize cats as mis-understood "Masters of the Universe."

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