For most cat lovers and parents, a cat’s purr is one of the most recognizable sounds of cat contentment. If your cat has suddenly stopped purring or has never purred, you might be looking for answers—and with good reason. Experts say each cat expresses themselves differently, but a sudden change in behavior is always a tell-tale sign to visit the vet.
Why doesn’t your cat purr? Turns out, there’s a lot more to understand about a cat’s purr than you might expect.
Why do cats purr?
What’s the importance of a cat’s purr? The purr of a cat isn’t just to express happiness to humans, says Dr. Stephanie Sheen, DVM at Fuzzy. Cats purr for a wide range of reasons—and body language will clue you into the reason for the purr.
1. Kitten-Queen Communication
A queen (or Mama Cat) purrs to communicate with her young, Dr. Sheen explains. Before a kitten’s eyes even open, mama purrs to her kittens to direct them to her milk. In response, the kittens let mom know when they are hungry or want to continue eating with their own little purrs.
2. Stress or Anxiety
The sound of a purr isn’t just soothing to you and me. The act of purring releases endorphins in a cat’s brain. These feel-good chemicals soothe a cat when they are stressed, anxious, or scared. Nervous purring during examinations at the vet is so common among cats that there are numerous studies on how to stop a cat from purring so that doctors can hear their breath and heartbeat.
3. Pain or Illness
There is evidence that purring plays a role in healing bones and soft tissue, Dr. Sheen says. The cat’s purr hits just the right frequencies for therapeutic recovery effects, studies say. Purring is also thought to keep muscles and bones strong—like humans lifting weights. The endorphins released during purring also play a role here, masking the feeling of pain. This could be one reason why cats purr while giving birth.
If you’re petting your cat and she’s purring, Dr. Sheen says you’re likely right to assume she is content. She’s telling you that she enjoys what you are doing and would like you to continue.
“Body language and context can help us understand more about what the cause for purring may be,” Dr. Sheen says. “If the cat is in a relaxed posture, such as laying on its side with its legs stretched out, purring is most likely due to contentment. If the cat has its limbs held close to the body and has open, dilated eyes or a tight facial expression, this could indicate another type of purr like anxiety or pain.”
What’s normal purring for the average cat?
There’s not a normal amount of how often your cat should purr, how long she should purr, or how loud she should purr, says Katenna Jones, one of our Certified Cat Behaviorists at Cat World. “Your cat simply may not be a purrer,” she says. The important thing, she adds, is to talk to your vet if you notice any changes in your cat’s behavior—including a sudden stop or change in purring.
Is it normal for a cat to not purr?
It’s not a cause for concern if your cat has never been one to express her emotions with a loud, vibrating purr. If this is a sudden change, that’s a reason to schedule a visit with the vet.
How is a cat’s purr produced?
To understand why your cat doesn’t purr, let’s review how they purr. The characteristic rumblings of a cat are controlled by the movement of the larynx (voice box) and diaphragm. The glottis (the part of the voice box surrounding the vocal cords) dilates and constricts. As your cat breathes in and out, the vocal cords separate, resulting in tension and vibration—commonly known as purring. Scientists aren’t certain how this all happens, but their best guess is signals sent by a neural oscillator in a cat’s brain.
7 Potential reasons your cat doesn’t purr
If your cat doesn’t purr, here’s why and what it might mean.
1. You’re just not hearing it
Cats don’t all purr at the same frequency or volume, Dr. Sheen says. In fact, a cat might purr at different frequencies and volumes to communicate different needs. It’s possible your cat’s purr isn’t easily heard.
2. Older cats
Like humans, cats can experience loss of memory and changes in personality as they age. Senior cats might stop purring, with 58% of senior cats showing other forms of increased vocalizations like yowling at night. Others might experience disorientation and a loss of appetite. Any changes in behavior shouldn’t be caulked up to aging without a visit to the vet.
3. Stress or anxiety
Stress and anxiety can look different from cat to cat. Some cats choose to purr as a coping mechanism. Others become more subdued than normal, frozen in posture, and silent.
As a mechanism for survival, cats will often hide their sickness, finding a quiet place to withdraw from others. They’ll avoid purring and making other vocalizations to not attract predators. Other types of illness, like laryngitis, makes it painful or impossible for a cat to produce her typical vocalizations.
5. Vocal cord injury
If your cat suffers serve trauma to her neck area, she could damage her vocal cord. If illnesses like laryngitis are not treated, your cat could experience permanent damage.
6. Feral origins
“Feral cats may purr less than owned cats due to the risk of attracting predators,” Dr. Sheen explains. A feral cat might not be conditioned to purr when happy. Instead, they reserve purring for important survival instincts like healing and strengthening muscles.
7. Different communication style
“Cats are unique individuals,” reminds Dr. Sheen. Some felines may be highly expressive while other cats prefer different communication styles than a purr. Other signs of contentment could include headbutting, grooming, and soft, squinty eye contact.
My cat used to purr. Why did it stop?
If your cat has suddenly stopped purring, or if the sound of her purr has changed drastically, it’s time to call the vet. By taking note of any additional changes in behavior or changes in her environment, your vet can help rule out the reasons for the sudden cessation of purring.
Is my cat happy even without purring? Or it is a potential sign of unhappiness?
- Slow, soft blinks
- Rolling on the back and exposing the stomach
- Grooming of you and other felines
- A tail upright in position
- Healthy behaviors like the use of the litter box, a typical appetite, regular grooming, and interest in play
When to see the vet
“Any odd change in behavior, such as cessation of purring when the cat normally purred previously, warrants a trip to the vet and possibly a session with a cat behavior consultant,” Jones says.
How can you encourage cat purring?
If your cat typically purrs out of contentment, you can motivate her to purr by:
- Talking to your cat. Experts say that cats respond best to high pitches (think bird chirps and small mammals). So, the higher the pitch, the more likely she’ll respond.
- Petting your cat. Get to know where and when your cat enjoys being pet.
- Provide an enriching environment. From high-up spaces to surfaces to scratch, your cat will be happiest, and more likely to purr, with environmental stimulation.
- Give your cat praise. When she does a behavior you like, tell her with treats, physical praise, or verbal praise.
Interesting facts about cat purrs
The domesticated feline isn’t the only cat to harness the power of the purr, Dr. Sheen says. “We find purring in several big cat species—like cheetahs, bobcats, cougars, ocelots, and lynxes.” All this coupled with the fact that cats purr not just as a reaction to us humans, leads us to believe that your cat likely purrs whether you’re home or not.
Will humans be next to benefit from the feel-good and healing powers that the vibrations of a purr provide? Dr. Sheen says that vibration devices are being tested by NASA for this exact reason. It’s called Good Vibrations and astronauts hope to strengthen their bones and muscles in space like a cat—with vibrations at the perfect frequency.