Quirks & Quarks

How and why do cats purr?

Purring is like a hug for cats — it can signal pleasure and sooth anxiety

Purring is like a hug for cats — it can signal pleasure and sooth anxiety

This cat may be purring with contentment (Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images)
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This week's question comes from Emma Gilchrist in Ramara, Ont. Emma asks:

How do cats purr, and why have they developed the ability to do so?

Rebecca Archer, a clinical instructor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary says that how cats purr has only been understood fairly recently thanks to neural imaging.

The purr begins with the cat triggering a centre in their brain called the neural oscillator. This signals to the muscles around the larynx to vibrate at a particular rhythm. That vibration moves the cartilage around the vocals cords, vibrating air and producing the purr. 

The reason cats purr is a little more complicated. Cats purr when they are happy and content. But they also purr when they are frightened or hurt. Research has found that cats purr in a frequency that can actually trigger healing in both bones and soft tissue. It has also been suggested that a cat purring is beneficial to human health.

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