When purring does not mean that your cat is contented

When your cat purrs you know that she is happy. Right? No, that is not quite right. It is probable that a lot of cat caregivers misunderstand the reason why cats purr because it is most commonly seen when a cat is contented. The purr is very obvious when she sits on your lap and happily snuggles up. Nearly all the times that you see your cat purring you associate it with moments when she is happy but this does not mean that purring always means that your cat is happy. Because of this inconsistency we have to find out what purring really indicates.

How do cats purr?
Contendly purring. Photo: in public domain.
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And the person who did that way back in 1986 (in his seminal book Catwatching) is Dr Desmond Morris, the world’s foremost cat behaviourist in my opinion. He started the world on the right path in terms of understanding cat behaviour.

A friendly social mood

If according to Jackson Galaxy, another renowned cat behaviourist, you attend the moment when your cat is being euthanised by your veterinarian at the end of her life you may find that your cat purrs during that most difficult of times. This cannot be a moment when your cat is happy. She might be in great pain or injured and certainly dying. So cats do purr when they are happy but they also purr at other times and under different circumstances.

Dr Desmond Morris explains that it is a signal that the cat is in need of friendship. The purr signals a friendly social mood in the words of Dr Morris. It might be a signal to thank their owner for the friendship that they are given.

Tory Waxman, DVM, a small animal veterinarian in America says that cats not only purr when they are content but also when they are afraid or nervous. This fits in with Dr Morris’s analysis. When a cat is afraid and nervous they seek friendship and reassurances from their human guardian.

Kittens suckling at mother's breast
Kittens suckling at mother’s breast. They knead the breast and purrr. Photo: Bored Panda.

The first purrs

Purring first starts when kittens are a week old when they’re being suckled by their mother. They purr to tell their mother that they are fine and are drinking the milk successfully. This reassures their mother and she responds by purring to her kittens to indicate to them that she is content and cooperating. All domestic cat purring originates in this initial circumstance.

The method

One of the amazing aspects of the domestic cat purr is that it works two ways on the in-breath and out-breath and when the mouth is firmly shut while drinking milk from their mother. The big cats can’t purr. A lot of people have tried to work out how cats purr and I have a page on that which you can read by clicking on this link.

Dr Waxman also says that because of the purr’s frequency it could help to promote bone and muscle healing. He says that cats might also purr to soothe themselves when in pain. He says that it acts like a baby with a pacifier.

Lynx purring
Lynx purring. Photo in public domain.

Ninety percent of the time or more cat owners will associate the purr with contentment but just occasionally you might see it produced at moments when your cat is not content and then you can read the meaning of that sound by reference to its fundamental meaning mentioned above.

Wild cats

Cat purring is the most idiosyncratic and iconic of feline sounds. It is a very interesting vocalisation. Many of the wild cats purr too, particularly the small species. This is to be expected as the domestic cat comes from a small wild cat species.


Here are some more pages on purring. There are lots more so please use the custom Google search tool at the top of the page.

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