Cat Communications: Purring and Padding

For cat lovers, one of life’s sweetest sounds is the rumble of a purr.

The purr is one of the most interesting and enigmatic features of our feline friends – it’s observed in all species of cats, but both the specific function that purring serves and the exact physical mechanism of the purr are uncertain.

There is no “purr box” – no organ or body part unique to cats that other non-purring species don’t have – and it’s generally believed that the actual purr sound is created by rapid vibrations of the larnyx.

Why do cats purr, but dogs don’t?

Exactly why cats alone developed the ability to purr is unknown. It’s speculated that cats may have developed the purr as a means of signaling between mother and kittens, and domestic cats have been known to purr when injured or ill. But in a healthy cat the purr signals contentment, pleasure, friendship, and love toward humans, other cats, and even other animals that are part of the cat’s “family”.

All cats purr differently, and most cats can come up with a surprisingly large variety of purrs according to the occasion. But whether it’s soft and light or an all-out electric motor buzz, a purr of any size generally means a cat is happy and satisfied.

Padding or kneading

Padding or kneading is a uniquely feline behavior that is often a sign of affection and trust. Kneading usually takes place on a soft surface (like a blanket or owner’s lap) and it consists of alternately pushing each forepaw firmly down and then lifting it (like someone kneading bread). It’s believed this action stems from kittenhood, when the kneading reflex helps the kitten stimulate the mother cat’s milk production.

However it’s also true that wild cats will use a similar motion to prepare a sleeping space in the wild, and it seems the domestic cat kneading a favorite pillow or loving human lap is combining the two forms of kneading in one.

Cats often purr while kneading, and may get very engrossed in the process (to the point that they’ve very annoyed if interrupted, even by petting). Cats may also become attached to a soft item, like a blanket, cloth, or item of clothing, and hold a corner of it in their mouth while padding. In addition to looking endearingly goofy (especially if the cat is a big, robust adult), this behavior seems to be very enjoyable and comforting to the cat and may become a pre-sleep ritual.