In the cat world, purring is considered a sign of happiness or contentment. This unique vocalization is often reserved for mother-to-kitten communication, and sometimes for communication between cats and their humans.
However, there are also other reasons that cats produce this soft, rumbling sound. At some point, a cat might purr to soothe itself from pain or injury. Some cats might also resort to purring when they feel anxious, stressed, or frightened.
So, do feral cats also purr? Well, all cats have the ability to purr, whether they are feral or domesticated. However, you might not often hear a feral purr due to their lack of human interaction. Most ferals are also non-purrers for survival reasons. This article will explain more about this, as well as how you can distinguish ferals from strays.
Why do cats purr?
If you are a cat owner, you are sure to have been blessed by your whiskered friend’s familiar, gentle rumble when they are happy. Often, we tend to associate this sound with calmness, happiness, or contentment. But purring could mean a lot of things, not just your kitty’s good mood.
Cats produce this soft rumbling through their laryngeal muscles. When a cat purrs, these muscles move rapidly, creating low-frequency vibrations as the cat breathes. What makes purring different from other feline sounds like meowing, hissing, or yowling, is that this vocalization is not limited to exhaling. Cats purr as they breathe in and out.
It is believed that cats learn to purr during kittenhood, when the mother cat bonds with her newborns. The purring behavior is often carried on until the kitten reaches adulthood. At this stage, instead of mother-to-kitten communication, the adult cat might purr to express contentment and pleasure.
But, as we mentioned, there are some other reasons an adult cat might produce their soft, rattling hum. Experts believe that felines purr for the following reasons:
- Hunger: Believe it or not, cats use purring to get what they want. If you have been a cat parent for a while, you have probably heard your kitties purr around mealtime or when they are hungry. It might sound a bit manipulative, but no fur parent can resist an adorable “solicitation purr.” So, in a way, cats are cleverly using their cuteness to make their lives more convenient.
- Healing: Cats can sometimes resort to purring to soothe themselves from pain or injury, or when they feel stressed. Animal experts believe that the purring sound can actually help heal their wounds and repair bones and muscles. And, whenever they feel afraid or anxious, the low frequency of purrs can help them calm down.
- Bonding: Mother cats express their emotional bond with their kittens through purring. In a way, purring is like a mother cat’s lullaby for her babies. Additionally, newborn kittens are blind and deaf, so they can only rely on their mother for food and warmth. They will often purr to let their mother know where they are, or that they feel okay.
- Affection: As the kitten grows into an adult cat, its purring behavior continues to express affection towards another cat or its human caretaker. You might hear them purr while conversing or grooming each other, or when your pet is in the mood for cuddles with you.
Do feral cats purr?
Feral cats, like most domesticated cats, can purr. But there is less chance that you will hear them purr, since these cats are elusive and tend to live in close-knit colonies away from humans. And, even if they have the ability to purr, in most cases they might never do so because they do not need or want to.
Ferals are also likely to be non-purrers for survival reasons. Animal experts believe that feral mother cats discourage purring from their kittens to avoid attracting predators.
Another possible reason that feral cats rarely purr is that they do not need to socialize or interact with humans. As mentioned, most cats purr to form an emotional bond with their human caretakers. But ferals do not need to attract human attention. Instead, these cats actively avoid approaching strangers at all costs.
There might be a few exceptions when a feral cat can be heard purring. On rare occasions, they might purr at the person who has been feeding or taking care of them for a long time. Still, these cats are likely to keep their distance and avoid being petted by the people they trust.
The difference between strays and ferals
If a homeless-looking cat purrs at you, it is likely a stray rather than a feral. But before you approach a poor-looking feline along the road to lend a helping hand, it is crucial to know whether it is stray or feral. More often than not, these cats tend to have contrasting traits, as summarized below.
Common traits of stray cats:
- Stray cats can tolerate human contact as they have been previously socialized before becoming homeless.
- Stray cats are often loners and will not hesitate to approach a human to beg for food.
- With patience and lots of love, stray cats can be easily tamed or re-introduced into a home.
- Similar to other domesticated cats, strays can purr, especially when they are fed. They might even purr at you when they are asking for food.
- Stray cats can revert to a wild state and become feral if they have not interacted with humans for too long.
Common traits of feral cats:
- Feral cats have never experienced human interaction.
- Feral cats usually live in colonies, although some male ferals are known to be loners and only care for their own survival.
- Unlike stray cats, you cannot tame a feral and turn it into a household pet. In fact, domesticating them can be cruel, and they are generally better off left in the wild.
- It is almost impossible to approach a feral cat; they will probably run away or hide to avoid humans.
- If you try to make friends or feed a feral cat, you might receive a hissing response instead of a purr. Most ferals never purr, even if presented with food.
Can feral cats be affectionate?
While the chances of a feral becoming affectionate are slim, it is possible for these cats to show gratitude to the people that take care of them. However, their ways of showing affection might be different from those of a typical house cat. Instead of climbing into your lap or rubbing its cheeks on your legs, a feral might show its appreciation by slowly accepting your presence instead of running away or hissing at you.
Still, if you decide to open your heart to help a feral, a few cautions must be taken. Feral cats have different temperaments from domesticated cats, and more often than not will never become as docile or friendly as your household pets.
Can a feral kitten become a house pet?
Kittens as young as eight weeks of age can be tamed very quickly. However, the task will involve serious commitment and lots of patience. In the first few days, feral kittens might hiss and spit at you, and this is normal. Just remember that kittens react this way out of fear, not aggression.
Kittens that are about 12 weeks of age can also be domesticated, although it might take a little longer, especially if the kittens have never experienced human contact. Again, patience is key.
If you are domesticating the kittens, it is important to separate them from the feral mother as soon as they are weaned. If the kittens are taught by their mother to fear humans, then taming them will be more challenging. Also make sure they are tested for contagious diseases to prevent any potential spread to other household pets.
Cats can purr for several reasons. In most cases, you will hear this odd yet soothing sound when your feline friend is happy and relaxed. However, this might not be the case for ferals who have never experienced human touch. While experts agree that feral cats can purr, you might never get the chance to hear them, due to their strong fear or dislike of humans.
Image: istockphoto.com / Yury Karamanenko