Why does a cat purr when you pet it?

If you pet a cat that knows you, and you’ve fed before, the cat will often lie down and allow you to stroke it’s fur. A cat seems to enjoy being petted in some spots more than others.

What I never understood is what the purring means? And, furthermore, how does the cat perceive the experience? One thing I think about is that humans have only existed for a few hundred k years, a couple of million if you count earlier similar ancestors.

How does the cat even know my hand is part of me? I don’t look like another cat. Why doesn’t the cat feel threatened by me? I am vastly larger than it is.

Cats seem to have a petting limit, usually, as well. I mean, if the cat is purring and letting you pet it, why does the cat suddenly decide it’s had enough petting and wander off? If the cat doesn’t like being petted now, why did it like being petted 30 seconds ago?

I’ve also had cats wake me up in the morning by rubbing their face against whatever part of me they can reach, and then the cat will rub it’s teeth against my skin if I don’t wake up. Finally, the cat will open it’s mouth and bite me using the molars at the back of it’s mouth. Somehow, the cat knows how to bite without a risk of breaking the skin. How on earth is this behavior possible? Again, I’m a primate slumbering away, how can the cat know how to bite me properly? Why does it know this will work?

The first sip of Pepsi is great. The second sip is good. The third sip is okay. The fourth sip is meh. The fifth sip is blah. By the sixth sip, I’m usually about ready to kill someone.

My cat Monstro would probably say that the first stroke of his fur is fine. The second is okay. And the third is BITEY BITEY SCRATCHY ROWRRRR!!!

Really? Your trying to understand why a cat does what it does??

From what I’ve read, purring is something a cat does deliberately, and they have to learn to do it, usually from their mother. I’ve had cats that never learned to purr as kittens, but in time they learned it from contact with other cats. One of my current cats had an inaudible purr when I got him. I could feel it but not hear it. Over time I rewarded his purring by petting him, and now he purrs normally.

The face rubbing is marking you as a possession by leaving a scent. You can’t smell it, but Kitty can.

So that’s how it knows your hand is ok?

I’ve noticed that if I try to pet my cat with my bare foot, even if I am very careful and gentle, somehow the cat knows it’s a foot and not a hand. I mean, tactile wise, the cat has fur, and I’m not putting any weight on the foot, so it should feel about the same to the cat.

Neverthless, every time I try, my cat attacks my foot, but if I reach down with my hand, he doesn’t attack it.

Cats behavior is fun.

  1. Most cats learn everything you are describing from their mothers and siblings, and sometimes from other cats in the household where they are kittens (if that’s an option for them).

Purring has been demonstrated to calm both the cat doing the purring, and the cat/person hearing the purring. Cats purr when they’re happy, but USUALLY only when there is an audience. Cats when they are alone will sometimes purr if they are scared or hurting, as a form of self-medication. Cats who did not learn to purr from their mother often pick it up from other cats in the household over time.

Gentle bites are taught by the mother cat as part of playing behavior, and as part of attention-seeking behavior. Your own body language also plays a part - if your cat bites you too hard, you yelp or twitch or pull away, or smack the cat (I don’t suggest that last option). Cats are not stupid, and they aren’t unobservant. It doesn’t take them long to realize that our naked skin is much less tough than their own fur-covered bodies. (Although cats play-fighting with each other will moderate their bites and strike with their claws sheathed also.)

How does the cat know your hand belongs to you? First, it can SEE you. Even though you’re large, you’re still a cohesive being. Cats are more confused by clothing changes than by appendages, and even those get figured out quickly by housecats. Also, it can SMELL you. It can tell that your hand belongs to you because it smells like you.

Why the face/teeth-rubbing on your skin? There are scent-glands on cat’s faces along their jawlines, and cats use those glands to mark their territory. Your cat is happily declaring to any other cats or dogs you might encounter that you are already owned, and that he is actively involved with you.

Why do you like having your head scratched, or your back or shoulders rubbed? It feels good. If something feels good, you’ll very quickly learn to react in ways that make that experience happen again. Same for cats being stroked.

A cat that enjoys petting is both domesticated and habituated.

If cats are not exposed to humans in their first 12 weeks of life, they will be feral and unfriendly. You might be able to tame them up eventually, but it will be much harder.

So the short answer is: cats are not frightened of humans, if they have learned since kittenhood that humans are safe, friendly, and benevolent. Otherwise they usually are.

It’s somewhat like asking why humans aren’t scared of horses, which are 10 times our size, flighty, and dangerous. The answer is, humans are usually scared of horses if they have no experience around them or have had a negative experience. Humans that have positive experiences are not usually scared of horses, even though we know they are 10x our size, flighty, and dangerous.

Cats purr when they are comfortable, and they also purr when they are in pain, it seems to be a noise that is self-soothing and attracts the notice of both humans and other cats. By contrast, cats rarely vocalize in terms of “meowing” to communicate with other cats. going meow seems to be something cats do mainly because people respond to it.

Habeed - was living with a cat forced on you recently? You seem clueless to normal cat behavior but that’s normal if you’ve always avoided cats. The cat seems to like you (purring, rubbing you, ‘love bites’), are you warming up to the cat?


It doesn’t seem to me he’s clueless. I believe he knows well cat’s behaviour but is just wondering why they act the way they do.

I’ve always known this but to see it in print makes me chuckle. :smiley:

Certainly true in general, but with enough exceptions to be worthy of notice.

I have two rescue cats - brothers. So they weren’t socialised early, and took quite a while to get used to me. They still bolt at the sight of anyone but me. The more timid of the two was hardly vocal at all at first, but has become more and more so over time. The two of them do communicate with meows. If one is missing the other will hunt all over for him meowing furiously. When the missing one turns up he is usually greeted with a furious brrrooowwww, and that is it. When one has caught something he will emit a charteristic meow that will instantly call the other one to action, even if the other one is flaked out on my chest. These behaviours seem to have grown over time.

to lull you into a false sense of security, of course.

Cats have eyes, memory, and sentience. They see you walking around with your gangly, evolved, monkey arms with opposable thumbs and know they are all a part of you. Even though you are not a cat they can understand that all parts attached to you are “you”. Cats are sentient and completely aware of the world around them.

The only problem I have with cats is that when you point at something they don’t look in the direction you are pointing. Dogs do it…

Dogs only do it if they see you making the motion of the pointing. Because that very closely simulates throwing their favorite ball (or whatever).

However, if you were to blindfold a dog, and then take that blindfold off with your arm already outstretched and pointing in a certain direction, the only likely response you’ll get from the dog is he might sniff your finger.

Don’t ask me how I know this.

I agree. It is very hard to domesticate a feral cat, and might not work. But sometimes it does.

One such is my cat Stripe. He was born to a stray under our back porch, and hung around long after Mother and siblings moved on. (For the whole story, see here and here.) We took him in when he was about eight months (96 weeks) old.

It did take a while. I don’t recall that Stripe allowed a human to touch him (without violently complaining using hisses, teeth, and claws; if I had to pick him up to put him in a carrier for a vet visit, I’d wear thick work gloves with sleeves that ran halfway up my arm) until he had been 18 months or so in our house. But during that time, he noticed how we interacted with our other cats–play, treats, petting, and so on–and how they reacted. I guess he got curious about what head skritches felt like, and long strokes down the back and tail, and he heard them purring when that happened.

Now, Stripe is no different from a kitten who grew up in the house. He purrs–a little raggedly, as if he didn’t get a lot of practice–but he purrs, enjoys head skritches and treats, and can stand being picked up. It was a long road, in both time and effort, to get Stripe to this point. He’s a treat. It is difficult to socialize and domesticate a feral cat, but Stripe proved that it can be done. If you have the patience and kindness to do so.

Hmmm, so if purring is a learned thing, how does a cat learn how to do it? Given we humans are not exactly sure how a cat actually purrs, after centuries of observation and theorising, I wonder what makes a kitten smart enough to work it out.

Maybe if we did work it out, we might discover we can purr too. Now that would be interesting. I suspect it might change the entire dynamics of human relationships.

Um, it’s a biological function. We don’t know how our brain works (and for millennia we didn’t know how ANY of the body works), but we still manage to learn to use our capabilities. I can’t explain to you the mechanism of a sneeze, but I still manage to do it just fine.

How a cat purrs is no mystery. Link