The feline purring sound means: ‘I am inoffensive‘. A close human equivalent to purring is smiling. Purring is heard under eight different conditions. I discuss them on this page.
There was a time when – before the educational Internet (!) – people thought that the cat purr only meant that the cat was providing a signal that she was content. This thought is probably still prevalent among a section of society but it is incorrect. Good cat owners and scientists alike have studied this vocalization and come to the conclusion that purring is heard under a variety of conditions.
When kittens are sucking at the nipple they purr. This is a signal to their mother that all is well.
When a mother is lying with her kittens she may purr. This is to reassure her kittens that all is well.
Mother Approaches Den/Nest
When a mother approaches the nest where her kittens are hiding she may purr to let them know that they should not be fearful of her approach.
A young cat approaching an adult cat play may purr to signal that she is in a relaxed mood and accepts her subordinate position.
If a dominant adult cat approaches a young cat in a friendly way he may purr. This would be a signal to the younger cat indicating non-hostile intentions.
If a dominant or more powerful cat approaches a submissive cat, the submissive cat may purr with the intention of appeasing the more powerful dominant cat.
A sick cat might purr when approached by a dominant cat. The intention is to let the dominant cat know that she is in a weak, non-hostile mood. Cats purr at the veterinarian’s clinic. They probably do so for the same reason. Substitute ‘dominant cat’ for ‘veterinarian’.
Yes, we know that most often cat use the purr to signal contentment. Just five minutes ago my cat joined me on my lap while I was dictating this. He purred as he settled down. If he is on his cat condo sleeping and I approach him he may wake up, see me and purr. He is happy to see me. There are numerous occasions when your cat will purr because he feels content but contentment, as mentioned, is not the only reason why a cat purrs. I discuss a range of feline sounds on another page.
Dr Desmond Morris says that a close human equivalent to purring is smiling. I think this is an interesting analogy. But if we think about it is an excellent analogy. Humans smile when they are being submissive, non-hostile and appeasing. We also smile when we are trying to reassure. And of course we smile when we are happy. Morris says that the message of the human smile is “I am not going to do you any harm”. It softens social relationships and lowers tension when in close proximity with another.
P.S. Some wild cats purr. The mountain lion is one example.
Source: This is a great source, Cat World (ISBN 0 09 187240 5) by Dr Desmond Morris. I have been generous in my quotes from this book because it is impossible to restate Morris’ words.