Purrrrrrrrr
April 11, 2009 8:27 AM   Subscribe

Why do humans enjoy it when cats purr?
posted by Artw to Pets & Animals (31 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because it makes humans believe (erroneously) that the cat likes them.
posted by milarepa at 8:29 AM on April 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


Why do humans enjoy it when human babies smile? Or when someone tells us we are doing a good job? Or when we win? Or when we finish a project?

Purring lets us know we are doing something right, and it makes us feel loved, and good, and special... and who doesn't love to feel those things?

That being said, chatfilter.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 8:32 AM on April 11, 2009


Because it makes everything seem comfortable and secure and generally A-OK. If kitty's happy, then everyone's happy. Cats are like cuddly security toys for adults.
posted by scratch at 8:38 AM on April 11, 2009 [9 favorites]


Because we can't do it.
posted by hermitosis at 8:40 AM on April 11, 2009


I think its also knowing that you have the power to make another being feel content.
posted by zennoshinjou at 8:56 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Cat's purr might actually have a healing effect.

'This association between the frequencies of cats' purrs and improved healing of bones and muscles may provide help for some humans. Bone density loss and muscle atrophy is a serious concern for astronauts during extended periods at zero gravity. Their musculo-skeletal systems do not experience the normal stresses of physical activity, including routine standing or sitting, which requires strength for posture control.'

I like the idea of astronauts stroking cats on the way to mars...
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:04 AM on April 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


Well, but there are other cat behaviors that we interpret as "friendly" or "loving" — kneading us with their claws, bringing us dead animals — that we don't enjoy. If cats signalled contentment by making horrible screeching sounds or emitting strange odors, we wouldn't like that either. There's something pleasant about the purring itself, regardless of what we take it to mean.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:06 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm convinced it's an evolutionary adaptation to get humans to take care of them.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:12 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Cheetahs purr. It seems unlikely that our ancestors running around the Serengeti would have particularly enjoyed that sound. Maybe the behavior isn't about cats' relationship to humans and is more about cats being cats? It is possible that we've amplified the behavior.
posted by rdr at 9:21 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I heard once that people are prone to liking cats because they're about the same size as a human infant. No idea if that's actually true, but there you have it. As for purring, I like when my cats purr when I hold them because they're relaxed and cuddly and they press their bodies into mine. Man, I love my cats.
posted by Maisie at 9:23 AM on April 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Are you sure your premise is correct? I don't enjoy it when cats purr. (I'm a human btw.)
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 9:34 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


My cats usually purr when they're warm and cozy, and if I'm close enough to hear them purring, there's a good chance I'm also warm and cozy. So maybe we're more prone to being comfortable when we hear them purring, so it has a positive association? And, anecdata, but I just think it's a nice sound and I find it soothing.

Disclaimer: right now my cat and I are sharing a blanket on the couch, and he's curled up against me, purring.
posted by min at 9:55 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


I view my cats as my children. When they're happy, I'm extremely happy.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 10:02 AM on April 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Really don't think this is much of a mystery...
Lots of people enjoy different soothing sounds. Waterfalls, waves, etc...for some people a cats purr sounds soothing. For others, like two or three cars parked under the stars, the sound of purring is not soothing.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:04 AM on April 11, 2009


For me, it's that I've produced such giddy emotions in something so flipping cute that all it can do is sit there and idle. It's like I've caused happiness overload in something that will never steal my shit, lie to me, betray me, or flake on plans. It's a good feeling, when all else fails.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:39 AM on April 11, 2009 [22 favorites]


I think this is a learned response in humans that have spent a lot of time with cats. People who like cats and have spent a lot of time with them love the sound of purring, presumably because they associate it with affection.

In contrast, I haven't had much interaction with cats and the noise does absolutely nothing for me. I can recognise the sound and I suppose I'm glad that the animal is happy, but I certainly don't get the big emotional response that cat owners and lovers are describing here.
posted by metaBugs at 10:58 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


One of the largest emotional drives on human decision making and behaviour is the seeking of approval.

Purrs are a big thumbs up from our feline friends. :)
posted by thatbrunette at 11:07 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wait, don't cats *always* purr? I had a cat, and she was always purring. I mean, sure, it got louder at times and sometimes it was soft, but you could always feel that low, purring vibration when she was in the room. This is why I hate people saying, "She likes you, she's purring!" because I don't think it means much.

And for the record, I don't give a rats ass if a cat is purring, it doesn't make me feel better or worse. I, too, am human.
posted by Lullen at 11:17 AM on April 11, 2009


/rat's
posted by Lullen at 11:17 AM on April 11, 2009


Wait, don't cats *always* purr? I had a cat, and she was always purring.

Growing up, we owned over 50 cats over the course of my childhood. Not one of those cats has purred constantly. I've come into contact with hundreds of cats since then, and the same can be said for every single one of them. Your one cat story doesn't speak for all other cats.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 11:38 AM on April 11, 2009


Wait, don't cats *always* purr? I had a cat, and she was always purring.

Your cat was trying to placate you and win you over.

And for the record, I don't give a rats ass if a cat is purring, it doesn't make me feel better or worse.

Without success, apparently.

Purrs seem to be pretty individual; I can easily imagine them as recognition signals between queen and kitten, securing a place at the teat, and I bet the cat monitors a humans response and tunes its purr to maximize that response.

Purr ringtones.
posted by jamjam at 12:14 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Humans have probably selected unconsciously for purring cats over the years of feline domesticity to some extent, too.
posted by Aquaman at 12:41 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Purr article at Wikipedia has some interesting things to say:

A purr is a sound made by all species of felids and is a part of cat communication. It varies between cats (for example by loudness and tone), and from species to species, but can be characterized as a tonal buzzing. Domestic cats purr in a frequency of 25 to 150 vibrations per second.

Although purring is commonly associated with felids, other animals such as raccoons purr. Other purring animals are: Guinea pigs in heat, rabbits, squirrels, ring-tailed lemurs, elephants while eating, and gorillas while eating.


The fact that gorillas purr while eating seems to me to raise the possibility that we humans used to purr, but lost the ability for some reason, but not, perhaps, an instinctive response of pleasure when purring occurs.

If you add the putative role in nursing, a lot of this purring seems to be associated with eating.

I wonder if purring could have the beneficial effect of helping to keep the airway clear and minimizing the possibility any food could go down the wrong way.
posted by jamjam at 12:50 PM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


I had a cat that would purr loudly while having kittens (between contractions anyway), which I always thought was kinda appropriate and a nice way to be welcomed into the world.

My girl cat purrs a lot but she is an (eye contact loving!) attention whore/people pleaser... My boy cat is quite introverted, purrs quietly only occasionally. I caught him purring loudly, with much enthusiasm, at himself in the mirror one time. He has given me that purr once when I was very upset and stressed. Apparently I didn't need to worry because I was "one sexy looking mofo" too. (That's not what was on my mind, but thank-you little man.)

Why do humans enjoy purring? Because it is nicer than the equally kind offer to sniff their butts. Yes we are friends. I appreciate that you feel our relationship is at that level, I really do. But get your damn cat-butt out of my face! Ugh!! Yep, the purring is good.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 1:02 PM on April 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


I had a cat that would purr loudly while having kittens (between contractions anyway), which I always thought was kinda appropriate and a nice way to be welcomed into the world.

Cats will also purr when they're sick or in pain. Some people think — I have no idea how you'd test this — that it's a way of comforting themselves. I'm not sure "welcoming" is what's going on here.

Damn, I'm just being a wet blanket all over this thread. Seriously, I love cats, I just hate projecting all this human stuff onto our relationship with them. We like them because they're small and soft and cute, not because we have a special emotional bond with them. We like purring because we find soft noises, gentle vibrations and the rhythm of breathing comforting — and because purring goes along with cuddles and nuzzling, which we also like — and not because we have any idea how the cat actually feels.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:19 PM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why do humans enjoy it when cats purr? Because purring is a comprehensible form of communication in some form or another. Cats seem to purr for many different reasons, but most of these reasons involve some kind of pleasure. While the urge to anthropomorphize our pets often leads us to do silly, silly things, I think it's undeniable that cats purr for a reason; and very often it's easy to see why in a given situation: they see someone they recognize, they enjoy lying in the sun, they like getting their tummy rubbed. It may be very basic and primal, but this is true communication, however simple and unrefined. We humans are, as Aristotle pointed out, political animals, and as such we take very real and very deep pleasure in our connections to other beings, especially the beings that we love. So when we hear a cat purr, it pleases us to know, in some limited way, what that animal is experiencing, and to know that it is pleased.

Anyway, in his 1982 show Carlin at Carnegie, George Carlin had some great thoughts on cats and dogs.
posted by koeselitz at 1:24 PM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


nebulawindphone: We like purring because we find soft noises, gentle vibrations and the rhythm of breathing comforting — and because purring goes along with cuddles and nuzzling, which we also like — and not because we have any idea how the cat actually feels.

I'm sorry, but that's taking the fear of anthropomophization to an irrational level. There are situations where it's obvious what an animal is thinking or feeling; this is not to say that any one of us really knows what it's like to be a cat or a dog, but it does mean that we have some things in common with them: enjoying certain foods, enjoying different kinds of touch, the experience of pleasure and the experience of pain. I agree wholeheartedly that it's far too easy to make assumptions about how animals experience things, but our pleasure at purring, as I said above, has everything to do with what we think the cat is going through, whether we're correct or not; this is obvious when we contemplate whether we would find purring pleasant if we knew that it was an expression of pain or anguish.

Just because we don't have a full and detailed knowledge of a certain thing doesn't mean that some small partial knowledge isn't even possible.
posted by koeselitz at 1:30 PM on April 11, 2009


I had a cat that would purr loudly while having kittens (between contractions anyway), which I always thought was kinda appropriate and a nice way to be welcomed into the world.

This is a very nice observation and fits with something I was just thinking about with regard to nursing: the oxytocin connection:

Oxytocin (IPA: /ˌɔk.sɪ.ˈtoʊ.sɪn/) is a mammalian hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain.

It is best known for its roles in female reproduction: it is released in large amounts after distension of the cervix and vagina during labor, and after stimulation of the nipples, facilitating birth and breastfeeding, respectively. Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin's role in various behaviors, including social recognition, bonding, anxiety, trust, and maternal behaviors. ...


It has a role in

Increasing trust and reducing fear. In a risky investment game, experimental subjects given nasally administered oxytocin displayed "the highest level of trust" twice as often as the control group. Subjects who were told that they were interacting with a computer showed no such reaction, leading to the conclusion that oxytocin was not merely affecting risk-aversion.[15] Nasally administered oxytocin has also been reported to reduce fear, possibly by inhibiting the amygdala (which is thought to be responsible for fear responses).[16] There is no conclusive evidence for access of oxytocin to the brain through intranasal administration, however.

Affecting generosity by increasing empathy during perspective taking. In a neuroeconomics experiment, intranasal oxytocin increased generosity in the Ultimatum Game by 80% but has no effect in the Dictator Game that measures altruism. Perspective-taking is not required in the Dictator Game, but the researchers in this experiment explicitly induced perspective-taking in the Ultimatum Game by not identifying to participants which role they would be in.[17]


Oxytocin is mainly stored in neurons in the pituitary, and the pituitary extends down into the nasal cavity in a bony box (very much so in humans, a bit less in cats).

I would say the mechanical vibration of purring helped to stimulate the secretion of oxytocin by that mother cat's pituitary, thereby improving the ability of her uterus to have contractions, and that's why she was purring so hard between contractions. (The Oxytocin receptor (OXTR) functions as an inducer of uterine contractions and milk ejection. [1] [2])

However, the effectiveness of oxytocin nasal sprays in producing feeling of trust and generosity (all kinds of other sources do not hesitate to say love) raises a really wild and intriguing possibility about the appeal of purring, I think.

Oxytocin is a peptide with no significant vapor pressure, as far as I know, so the only way to get it into a person or animals nose is in the form of a spray or a suspension.

I think purring could possibly accomplish this, mechanically, somewhat in the way of an ultrasonic humidifier or a sneeze, by producing fine droplets of oxytocin rich cat nasal secretions, which would then be breathed in by humans or the mother or other animals. (They could be fine enough and sparse enough not to be very visible, or they could even evaporate almost immediately, leaving a breathable suspension of oxytocin in the air.)

Voila! People like cat's purring because the cat is using its purr to dose you with love hormone.
posted by jamjam at 2:28 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The fact that gorillas purr while eating seems to me to raise the possibility that we humans used to purr, but lost the ability for some reason

It's not like you've never tasted something good and went "Mmmm." That is, essentially, a purr.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:59 PM on April 11, 2009


If oxytocin aerosolized by purring is a bridge too far, and it may be, though I'm not prepared to sound the retreat quite yet, mouth fluids rich in oxytocin would account for a couple of other things about cats that have puzzled me for years.

Namely, the fact that they are constantly covering themselves with their own saliva and letting it dry, and the unusual propensity of cat fur to generate static electricity. Those two things working together-- the dried saliva would contain oxytocin, and when the cat's fur got all charged up, that would cause microscopic particles of the dried saliva to spring into the air with a similar charge (like repels like)-- and people (and other mammals) would breathe it in, especially if they insisted on rubbing that cat and getting it all charged up, as is our wont, and that would cause us to love the cat.

In this scenario, we might like purring because it develops a Pavlovian association with the high we get when our petting of the cat causes all these oxytocin bearing particles to fly out of the cats fur, particles that we then breathe.

And perhaps there is a good reason for kittens, and other baby mammals to have oxytocin in their mouths, anyway: oxytocin increases milk flow by acting on receptors in the breast, and backflow of oxytocin-rich saliva from the kitten or other baby animal might be able to stimulate more milk production and lead to better chances of survival, particularly in animals, like cats, who might have to compete with litter-mates for a limited supply of milk.
posted by jamjam at 8:11 PM on April 11, 2009


I'm with koeselitz. I prefer to turn the question on its head and ask how sure we are that our intellectual understanding of things human is anthropomorphizing ourselves -- that is, creating the iconography of humanness so that we can justify ourselves. Love, after all, turns out to be just so many hormonal responses -- despite all that damned poetry. So perhaps we're better off trying to understand ourselves as complicated animals.

I think it's clear that cats can like someone or not, and can experience pleasure and contentment. I know that my cat and I "talk" -- he's partial to a barely-audible trill as a "hello" or generic attention-getter and so I trill back at him. A trill isn't precisely a purr but it isn't precisely not a purr either. On the other hand, he rarely purrs very audibly, even when obviously contented. You have to feel him to be sure he's purring.

I think the question is phrased in an interesting way that takes into account this broader view, and actually speaks to the heart of why we enjoy or "love" our companion animals or even working animals. It's a self-directed being. It is something we have a relationship with, something we are capable of developing one with. Purring represents a kind of communication and communication gives us pleasure.
posted by dhartung at 12:24 AM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


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