Why Do Cats Purr When You Stroke Them?

Why Do Cat Purr When You Stroke Them?

Cats may seem aloof but they are social creatures and they communicate with humans through various vocalizations.  They meow, trill, yowl, hiss and purr. While it may be melodious or annoying all of these sounds have consequent meanings and convey a message to their humans. 

Why do cats purr when you stroke them?

Here are the reasons why cats purr when you stroke them:

1. They feel happy and relaxed. 

Your cat may purr when you stroke her because she is in a state of relaxation and feels happy with your petting. Stroking her in a preferred spot may heighten her relaxed state. Cats generally prefer to be stroked between their ears, on their cheeks, under the chin and along the spine although you should not overdo it. If you hear your cat purring when you stroke those areas it may mean that she is happy, relaxed and contented. 

Here are the signs that your cat is relaxed while being stroked:

  • her limbs are outstretched or curled in a loose ball
  • her eyes are closed or gently blinking 
  • her ears are in a relaxed position and pointed forward 
  • her tail is still or curled upward like a question mark
  • her whiskers are pointing away from the face 
  • her body is not tense
  • her claws are sheathed 
  • she is leaning towards you while you are stroking her

2. They may be overstimulated. 

Cats may purr when you stroke them because they may be overstimulated. Watch out for warning signs like loud and abrasive purring, biting and other aggressive actions. Cats have a sensitive sense of touch and may easily become overstimulated with constant stroking and petting. Some cats give warning signals but some may react without warning. 

Here are other signs that your cat may be overstimulated:

  • she is growling or hissing
  • she is attempting to escape 
  • she is fidgeting while you are stroking her
  • she is watching your hands intently 
  • her tail is swishing 
  • she has dilated pupils 
  • her ears are flattened against the head 

Once you notice these warning signs stop stroking your cat and let her go. 

3. They may be in pain. 

Cats may purr when you stroke them because they may be harboring pain and discomfort. This may be due to arthritis, injury and other health conditions. Cats may purr to manage their pain and if the purring happened at a time when you were stroking them you may misinterpret it as a sign of contentment which is not the case. Cats are masters at hiding pain since instinct tells them that it is a sign of weakness. 

Other signs that your cat may be in pain include the following:

  • she is hunching and curling like a ball 
  • she is not grooming herself 
  • she is hiding from contact
  • she is exhibiting aggressive behavior 
  • she is purring louder than usual and may also be doing other types of vocalizations 

Cats may still tolerate petting and stroking but the purring may get loud and aggravated. In this case stop stroking her and check out the root cause of your cat’s discomfort. You may also check the article, Why does my cat purr so loud, for more details. 

4. They may purr as a form of self-healing. 

Cats may purr when you are stroking them because they are self-soothing themselves to heal a previous injury. These are usually skeletal or muscular injuries due to a fall or impact. According to the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, purring at a frequency of 25 and 150 Hz produces vibrations that encourage bone healing.  If you suspect that your cat has an injury, stop petting and check for signs such as limping and hunching over. 

5. They may be stressed. 

Your cat may be purring when you are stroking her because she may be stressed or anxious. She may be feeling relaxed with the petting but she may also be stressed because of sudden changes in your home such as a new pet, a new household member or home remodeling. 

Here are other signs to check out:

  • her eyes are dilated
  • she has a tense body 
  • her ears are flat against the body 
  • she is attempting to make her body as small as possible 

If you notice these signs, let go of the cat and respect what the cat wants. The next time you intend to stroke or pet her, allow her to approach you on her terms and do not force petting. 

6. They may be hungry. 

Another reason why cats purr when you stroke them is that they may be hungry. Cats tend to approach their humans not only as a sign of affection but to convey hunger.  They may tolerate being stroked but eventually may grow impatient. 

Similarly, your cat may have liked the petting but after a while may have decided that she wants to eat. This may happen if you are petting and stroking her before her mealtime. According to Current Biology, the sound of a hungry purr is like a cry embedded within a purr. It is louder, less pleasant to the ear, more dramatic and sounds like a crying baby to attract attention. 

If you suspect that your cat is hungry, stop stroking or petting her and observe what she does. Hungry cats will usually approach an empty food bowl and meow steadily. 

7. It may mean that they have a health concern or a breathing problem. 

What you may be hearing while stroking a cat may be heavy breathing instead of purring. If you notice that your cat seems to purr while her mouth is open, you should act immediately as she may be struggling for breath. This usually happens if you have an older cat.  While it may be normal for cats to be catching their breath especially after exercise or playtime, continuous harsh and labored breathing is not normal and it should be addressed promptly.

It may be a sign of a respiratory infection or condition. If you suspect that your cat’s purring does not convey contentment or happiness, stop stroking her and evaluate her situation as she may be having health issues.  

Final thoughts 

Hearing your cat purr as you stroke and pet her is endearing and encourages you to pet her further. Unfortunately, this may not always mean that she is happy with what you are doing. Cats may purr when you stroke them because they are relaxed and content. However, they may also purr when you stroke them because they are overstimulated, in pain, stressed or hungry. 

Image: istockphoto.com / kobeza