Why People Purr at Their Cats, According to a New Study

Humans may be trying to meet cats halfway when it comes to communication.

by Josie Rhodes Cook

August 8 marks the annual occasion of International Cat Day, a day on which your Facebook and Twitter feeds are likely inundated with cat facts and photos posted by their devoted owners. And if there’s one unifying characteristic about the way cat people interact with their four-legged friends, it’s the way they talk to them.

That behavior is the topic of a paper published in July in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science about the socio-cognitive relationship between humans and their pets. Researchers at the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary found some interesting patterns about the ways cat owners communicate with felines.

For the survey, researchers Péter Pongrácz and Julianna Szulamit Szapu asked 157 Hungarian cat owners about their relationships with their cats. The paper reports that higher-education owners considered their cats as being more communicative and empathetic, while young owners imitated cat vocalizations more frequently.

A majestic, purring creature.

Josie Rhodes Cook

Clea Simon, author of more than 20 books featuring cats including The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats, tells Inverse the habits observed by the researchers may be as simple as humans understanding how special it is to have a cat around, and that we want to communicate that pleasure of having their company in their “language.”

“Those of us who live with — and love — cats know the joy of feeling chosen,” Simon, who was not involved in the study, tells Inverse. “Cats choose who they love, rather than give blind obedience like dogs. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to me to try and communicate on their terms.”

Pongrácz and Szapu found that the more an owner initiated play with his or her cat, the more commonly they performed imitations of cat vocalizations. In addition, they also found that cat owners were more likely to imitate cat vocalizations if the cat initiated a play session, rather than when the owner initiated play. “Our results show that owners considered their cat as a family member,” the authors wrote, “and they attributed well developed socio-cognitive skills to them.”

Interesting still is that “cats often use vocalizations during cat-human interactions,” according to the authors.

They're mysterious creatures. 

Unsplash / Mikhail Vasilyev

Pongrácz and Szulamit Szapu were not sure why humans purr or otherwise use cat vocalizations with their feline companions, as opposed to simply speaking to them as many dog owners do their own pets. They suggested that it’s possible that “human-emitted cat vocalizations enhance the success of human-cat communication,” or that this sort of communication may result in a specific reaction from the cats, but further experimentation is needed.

Simon, however, says it’s all about meeting cats halfway. “It’s their choice who they’re affectionate with,” she says of cats. “It’s more of an equal relationship…we want to win that love, and be worthy of that love.”

You can go ahead and try to wish your cat a happy International Cat Day in its “language,” but just saying it to them instead is probably just as effective.

Related Tags