When we think of cats, we think of cute meows and rumbling purrs. It’s just a part of who cats are. Although there’s no way of knowing why cats developed the ability to purr, it’s still one of the best things about being a cat owner. Something about the rumbling vibrations is just naturally calming.
Not all cats have the ability to purr, though, and big cats like lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars can’t purr at all.
What Is Purring?
If you own a cat, you’ve no doubt heard the distinctive rumbling purr when they’re content. It’s a steady, rumbling, continuous vibration that isn’t hindered by your cat’s breathing. If you listen carefully, you can hear the subtle shift in pitch as your cat breathes in and out.
The sound is created by the hyoid bone in their throat. This U-shaped, twig-like bone is near the back of a cat’s tongue and the base of their skull. It’s present in both big and small cats but is formed differently, which is what gives them very different vocal abilities.
Why Can’t Big Cats Purr?
In small cats, the hyoid bone is rigid and resonates when the larynx vibrates, creating the steady purring sound that we all know and love. For big cats, the hyoid is slightly more flexible due to the cartilage connecting the hyoid to the skull. While the cartilage doesn’t allow for the resonance that enables purring, it does give big cats the ability to roar impressively.
But not all big cats can roar! Despite being part of the genus Panthera, the snow leopard lacks the elasticated tissue necessary to roar that other big cats have.
Similarly, a few of the vocalizations that lions and jaguars can make are reminiscent of purring, though they aren’t quite the same thing. Big cats often make sounds like chuffing or coughing and sometimes even their own variation of the domesticated cat’s purring.
What Is the Largest Big Cat That Can Purr?
There are at least two big cats that can purr. Both cougars and cheetahs purr instead of roar, but they’re also not scientifically classed as “big cats.” This is due to their original grouping in the 19th century.
The researchers who settled on the two groups of cat species, Felis and Panthera, split them based on the species’ ability to purr. This led to the genera being known as “purring cats” and “roaring cats,” respectively.
Due to their ability to purr, cougars and cheetahs are both classed as “small cats.” Their actual size, however, often means they’re unofficially considered big cats, despite their inability to roar.
Cheetahs are part of the genus Acinonyx all on their own, although they are still part of the feline family. Not only do they have a unique ability to chirp in a way that sounds similar to a canary’s song, but they’re also unable to completely retract their claws.
Why Do Cats Purr?
Most of the time, cats purr when they’re content or enjoying a good scratch behind the ears. Showering them with affection isn’t the only time that you might hear your cat purr, though. There are several other situations in which they might break out the rumbling vocalization.
Cats will sometimes purr to request your attention and when they receive it. If they’re hungry, their purr might sound a little different than usual and be combined with loud meowing to express their discontent.
If your cat is taking a nap in their favorite sunny spot and they start purring, they’re likely just happy. It’s their version of a satisfied sigh, like when you sink into a hot, bubble-filled bath at the end of the day or finally get a chance to put your feet up.
If you have experience with a mother cat and her litter, you’ve probably heard a great deal of purring between them. Kittens are naturally prone to purring as a way to tell their mother that they’re okay — it’s one of the first vocalizations that they can make. Purring is also a way for the mother cat to bond with her young or even sing her litter to sleep.
Not all purring is to show contentedness. Sometimes, it’s a way for your cat to soothe their anxiety or promote healing after an injury or surgery. It’s a bit like us wrapping ourselves in our favorite blanket after a long, stressful week or seeking a hug from a loved one.
Unique but easily recognizable, purring is something that we all think of when we see domestic cats. Purring is possible due to the rigid hyoid bone in a cat’s throat. Not all cats have the ability to purr, though.
While the hyoid bone resonates in small cats, the cartilage holding it in place for big cat species has more flexibility. Lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars can’t purr, but their roaring is just as impressive.
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