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Why do cats purr?

| February 18, 2012 | Comments (10)

Everybody loves the cat purr. But why do cats actually do it, and what are they trying to communicate to us when they do?

Cats do not purr because they feel pleasure

Most people believe that cats purr because they feel pleasure. It may be true that often do purr when they feel pleasure (correlation), but it is not true that they purr BECAUSE they feel pleasure (causality).

Cats cuddling

Why do cats purr when they cuddle?

In fact, many scientists believe that cats can’t in fact feel pleasure, and that the only emotion they can feel is contempt. These scientists believe that cats in fact purr as a deceptive tactic. The theory is controversial among scientists as well as the public in general, as seeing your cat as trying to deceive you is hard for most people to swallow. After all, people (and scientists) love their cats.

Why cats don’t purr when they don’t need anything

Recent experiments have shown that when cats are hungry, they purr louder and more easily than when they have just fed. This strengthens the “deception” theory, but has its opponents:

“Cats are wonderful animals” says Dr. Calsius, Ph. D. in veterinarology, “and don’t grasp concepts such as ‘deception’ or ‘contempt’. These are largely man-made rationalizations to try to explain something we have not yet been able to explain. In fact, it is common to put human qualities on any animal. The fact that most people do it unconsciously doesn’t mean that it is true.”

Further experiments have been suggested to prove the “deception-theory”. But such experiments have run into problems, and are often difficult to interpret.

One such experiment has been conducted by the University of Arizona. The aim of the experiment is to measure a cats purring activities when the cat is left alone. A problem that the experimenters have run into, however, is that cats left alone don’t purr simply for the reason that they immediately fall asleep in such circumstances. The university has dubbed this “the lone sleeping cat syndrome”.

In one instance of the experiment, a cat did in fact purr for a minute when left alone in the room. It started purring as the humans closed the door of the room, but stopped after a minute.

According to Dr. Calsius, however, this doesn’t prove anything. He expresses the problem this way: “Measuring a cats purring activities may be simple in itself – just place a tape recorder in a room where a cat resides – but the problem lies in knowing whether the cat sees the tape recorder as something that can fulfil its needs and thus purrs in an attempt to ‘deceive’ the tape recorder into doing something it wants.”,

Other theories about why cats purr

Scientists have long tried to explain why cats purr. Some explanations that stem from times before experiments such as the above were set up include the following:

  • Cats purr to heal themselves – as the frequency of purring is the same frequency that strengthens bone structures in mammal bodies.
  • Cats purr to form a bond with their newborns.
  • Cats purr to comfort themselves.

There are problems with all of the above theories, and the simple truth is that nobody yet quite understands why cats purr. Perhaps science will one day tell us the reasons why cats purr – while also giving us a glimpse behind their deceptive (or not) psyche.

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Category: Pets

Comments (10)

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  1. Laurie Nelson says:

    Another crap post about cats (the other claims to explain why cats feel contempt). Cats purr to “deceive” us. I’m glad to see you at least quoted an expert about cats in this post. But you discounted that expert, and you left out one of the most important theories about why cats purr: to help their blind and deaf newborns to find their milk source. The kittens feel the vibrations.

    I hope people with cats will go to other sites (as well as books) to find better information about cats. Cornell Feline Health Center and Animal Planet are two of the better sites.

    • admin says:

      Dear Laurie,

      Thank you again for voicing your opinion about our research methodologies in this post. According to Dr. Calcius, the theory about cats purring to help their blind newborns find milk is a widely believed myth but has never been proven. We did not include this statement in the post because it would divert from the real message: Namely, that cats purr because they want to deceive us to give them food.

      I understand your reaction, and this reaction is quite common among our readers. People love their cats, and it is a difficult fact to swallow that their cat actually feels only contempt back and use deception tactics on us.

      Thank you for linking to those other sites. We will read through them.

      Site Administrator

  2. Chris Vaughn says:

    I’m trying to find something in this article that offers evidence that cats purr to deceive and can’t find anything. This makes the smug tone of the response to Laurie Nelson’s comment additionally baffling. Your “theory” is actually baseless and arbitrary. Smug misdirection will not conceal this from readers with even a passing understanding of scholarly analysis. I suspect that you are trolling here.

    I guess you can write an article about anything you want and respond how you like on your blog, but credibility will come from offering evidence or at least a line of reasoning to support this claim.

    So how does a cat’s purring deceive other creatures (humans) into giving them food? How are you proposing that this mechanism works? Are you suggesting that cats developed the ability to purr to deceive humans? Is that why cheetahs and snow leopards purr? I don’t see how wild animals would purr out of contempt.

    • admin says:

      Dear Chris,

      Thank you for your comment. We at WhyThisWhyThat are happy to see such engagement in these dear animals’ reputation. We love cats as much as the next person, but we cannot let this come in the way of scientific understanding of the underlying factors behind their behavior.

      The truth to purring is not yet known to man. However, out of the prevailing theories, the one that cats purr to deceive humans (or any other object that they feel can be a source of food) into giving them food is the most accepted by the scientific community, although controversial.

      We will of course continue to keep our eyes and ears open to the scientific community as they try to de-mystify this phenomenon.


  3. Libby Budge says:

    My cat and I have just eaten dinner & come upstairs to sit in our respective chairs. She is doing what she does at least once a day — walk around the fleece on top slowly, kneading the entire circumference & purring loudly as she goes, seemingly oblivious to anything I do. What is she trying to get out of me?

    • admin says:


      Thank you for your question. We at WhyThisWhyThat understand that cats’ behavior can be quite confusing at times. As Dr. Calsius says, it is hard to measure what a cat really feels. The only thing we can see is that the cat does, and from there make inferences.

      In your case, my best guess is that your cat, although she has eaten, still is not satisfied. We humans sometimes crave something sweet after eating dinner. It is commonly known that cats can’t taste sweet (although even such a simple thing to test has its opponents), but it may be that your cat is trying to get your attention for something else your cat is craving. It may be affection (although ‘affection’ is largely a man-made rationalization, and scientists would say that the cat wants someone to groom it in order to keep the muscles in good shape). Are you giving your cat enough massage? If you are, it may be the case that your cat needs even more of it. Doing so may make you feel good, as well as be beneficial for your cat’s health.

      We wish you the best, and hopefully our answer has given you some ideas about what your cat needs and wants.

  4. Brian says:

    My cat will have a full bowl of food and meow like a maniac, until I open the closet and reveal that there is more food for when her bowl is empty…But, I deceived her, because the bag is actually EMPTY!!! Just kidding…Cats purr because they can…B

  5. […] our previous post about why cats purr we wrote that the only feeling that cats can feel is contempt. After publishing that post, emails […]

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