The sight of a cat curled up on a warm lap purring loudly is a classic image of contentment. When we humans hear the sound we often feel contented too. Purring is not a universal characteristic, it is a feature common only to the cat family. The reasons for this are unclear, although it has now been discovered that cats will purr in a number of very different situations, including when in pain or when scared. So what message are they sending out? When a cat chooses to sit on a lap, it’s a sign of trust, given that in the wild cats avoid body contact even with each other. Stroking echoes being groomed by its mother and the cat will purr with contentment.
Purring is a unique feature of the cat family, although lions and other large wild cats cannot make the sound. But what does it mean? As far as we know, a purring cat is a happy cat. Indeed, anyone who has had a purring cat asleep on their lap will feel the contentment emanating from their pet. Yet cats that are frightened, in great pain, or even females giving birth, will purr. The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in the mother and kitten relationship.
When suckling, both the kittens and their mother will purr at the same time. The sound has a dual role for the mother. It calms the kittens and stops them clawing at her teats, and it also lets the kittens know where their mother is at all times.
Cats don’t lose this behaviour when they grow up and become solitary adults. When a cat sits on your lap and begins kneading with its claws (known as paddling) and purring at the same time, it has actually mistaken your warm lap for the warm belly of its mother. Another reason why it may purr when it is in pain or is scared is to draw attention to itself and to signal its distress.
Q. Whenever I look directly at my cat he starts purring at me. Sometimes the sound is so loud it is off-putting. What is he doing?
Staring at a cat, especially without blinking, is a very threatening gesture. You are making your cat nervous and he is purring to let you know that he is `friendly’. Next time, try blinking slowly when you make eye contact. This is a strong reassurance signal.
Q. Whenever my cat gets on to my lap she purrs furiously, paddles with her claws and chews my jumper. How can I stop her from doing this?
A cat that acts in this way is really expressing its over-dependency. In other words, yours is acting like a kitten. Next time your cat acts like this, move away. In time she will break the habit. She needs to be encouraged to be independent – make sure she spends part of the day outdoors.
- Purring helps to provide a means for kittens to keep in touch with their mother.
- The sound of purring is less likely to attract the attention of predators than louder sounds such as crying.
- Kittens are able to purr at one week old. They do this while feeding on their mother’s nipple to let her know that they are receiving her milk. She also purrs to comfort them.