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purr-fecting the message: dr. kim smyth explains solicitation purring in cats

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan


Cats are have many endearing qualities. They are adorable. They are curious. They are independent. They have mastered the art of sleeping. And yet, they have also somehow perfected the art of interrupting ours, which leads me to my next adjective: persistent.

I firmly believe that all cat owners can testify under oath that there are many nights when it seems like their cat’s main objective for the entire night is to see how many times he or she (or they!) can wake up their owner. Or, even better, to see how long they can keep their owners awake. 

I thought I had outsmarted my cats by never, ever, ever allowing them in my bedroom at night. Doing otherwise would inevitably ensure that I would have either a) a cat sleeping on my head, b) a cat pouncing on the “foot monster” with precision accuracy, or c) at cat who systematically bats every item off of both nightstands and the dresser. Because I have two cats, it was usually a combination of two activities that kept me awake several times a night. 

Kicking the cats out of my room at night only led to persistent scratching at the door, sometimes with the bonus of reaching a paw under the door to pull at the Berber carpet. Lovely. So, the lesser of two evils is just allowing them into the room.

You’d think that being able to physically torture us all night would be good enough, right? Not so. Cats, ever industrious as they are, have also figured out a way to manipulate the human species without even laying a paw on us. It’s called solicitation purring, and cats reserve this secret weapon for when they really, really, really want something. 

Solicitation purring combines the pleasant sound of contented purring with a high frequency meow to maximize the urgency of the message. Studies show that if a cat addressed its owner with a normal “meow”, the owner was less likely to pay attention than if a cat used solicitation purring to achieve his goal. Owners perceived the solicitation purring as more urgent and were more likely to respond. 

When recording of regular purring and solicitation purring were played for people who were not even cat owners, they still recognized the difference in the two and rated the solicitation purring as “less pleasant.”

Cats will use solicitation purring for all kinds of situations. Often, you can hear it at meal time, or just before meal time, or anytime your cat desires a meal (which is this house is often). Solicitation purring is also very effective at waking up lazy owners who have the audacity to try to sleep in instead of interacting with their cats.

I don’t think solicitation purring is unpleasant. In fact, I think it’s kind of cute (unless I’m asleep). The “meow” in solicitation purring is subtle – it’s more like a high pitched whine amidst the purring. Smartly, the “meow” sound just happens to be similar to the frequency of a crying baby. Coincidence? Or just another example of the many ways in which cats seek to control us, the inferior species?

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Chris AshtonCo-Founder and Co-CEO of Petplan Pet Insurance
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