Kittens are born blind and deaf, remaining so until they are around two weeks old. They begin to purr to let their mothers know that they are hungry and where to find them. When I was young I was told that when cats purr they are telling us that they are happy. When we stroked our little feline friends we believed that they enjoyed it and were trying to encourage further interaction with us. It always surprises me how much research is carried out on our pets so I was intrigued to discover that research suggests that cats can purr for a number of reasons, using the soft rumble as a way of communicating and as a form of self-soothing or even healing. This is why cats will often purr when they are injured or after a stressful event.
So, is there a way to tell why your cat is purring? Context is everything followed by their body language. For example, if they are purring as soon as you wake up in the morning they are asking to be fed. When you get back from work and you pour that glass of wine and fall onto your couch and your kitty nestles into your lap and you hear that purr it might be their way of saying hello and are pleased to see you. Some cats might purr loudly when they are investigating new environments, after they’ve been startled or after a stressful episodes like being chased by a dog or a young child!
One of my favourite hypotheses is that the purr has a powerful healing action; it is thought that the vibrations from the activity are a way for the cat to ‘heal’ itself after stress. Personally I think the purr has a big benefit for us too as it takes our mind off the day we have had and calms us, creating a stronger bond with our pet.
Our little feline warriors are excellent at hiding their pain. As mentioned above purring typically indicates happiness in our cats but they may also purr to communicate when they are stressed, anxious, or trying to communicate other needs such as if they are in pain or uncomfortable. So, if your cat is purring whilst displaying signs that you do not recognise with a feeding or our welcome purr then they might be purring because it is pain-related. In fact, purring may actually increase in a cat experiencing pain.
It is worth remembering that when you try and evaluate your cats level of pain there is always a chance that they might scratch or bite you which could be completely out of character for them, so be careful. It is always worth discussing the changes in behaviour with a veterinarian to help determine whether or not your cat might have arthritis or any other symptom of pain.
So remember purring is partly voluntary and partly instinctive and it is our responsibility to notice any change in their purring behaviour.