Do big cats purr?

Felines use several methods of non-verbal methods of communication. Purring is one of the sounds species of felids make. The purring sound is made both during the ingressive and egressive airstream. Unlike the other sounds made by felines at the end of a breath, purring is created while the animal is inhaling and exhaling. Purring is a unique sound made by the domestic cat. The sound is generally associated with the feeling of happiness and contentment although cats are known to purr during stressful situations like when they are sick, frightened or nervous. All domestic cats have the unique ability to purring. This would make one wonder if big cats have the capability of purring too. Do big cats purr? It is generally believed that big cats that can roar cannot purr. However, this notion was refuted by people that have actually heard tigers and leopards purr. The complexity of the purring sound is not confined only on how the sound is produced but also on what species of felids can make the purring sound.

A purr is a sound arising from the larynx. The sound is made when the air pressure causes the left and right voice ligaments to rapidly separate. There are conflicting theories on the ability of big cats to roar. One school of thought supports the idea that big cats can roar but they cannot purr. This is because there is a difference in the hyoid bone of big cats and domestic cats. The hyoid bone in small cats is hard (ossified) while an elastic segment is found in the hyoid bone of big cats. This elastic segment prevents big cats from purring but allows them to make a roaring sound. Some scientists though believe that big cats can purr. The only difference is that they can only do so while exhaling unlike domestic cats that can produce the purring sound continuously. The purring sound big cats produce would then resemble a cough or a growl. Nevertheless, just like the smaller cats, lions and tigers will produce the “almost” purring sound when they are in a group or when they are nursing the young. Just as with domestic cats, the resonance and the frequency of the purring are believed to promote healing. Injured big cats would be heard making a sound that is not too different from the purring sound domestic cats make.

Domestic cats and big cats have the same voice box that functions in exactly the same manner. Species that are under the genus Panthera – tiger, lion, jaguar and leopard are expected to have a much bigger larynx as compared to what domestic cats have. These larynxes are specially adapted to making louder and deeper sounds. These big cats would therefore produce loud roars while the smaller larynxes of domestic cats will produce a purr. Tigers and leopards make chuffing sound similar to humans clearing the throat. The chuffing sound is created by rumbling the throat while inhaling air through the nostrils. This version of the purring sound is characterized by short bursts of sound. A domestic cat’s purr though would be a continuous low rumbling sound that is produced while the mouth of the cat is closed.

Some scientists classify cheetahs and cougars as animals under the big cat umbrella. Both cheetahs and cougars can purr. This is one of the reasons why some researchers would not consider cheetahs and cougars as true big cats. These animals would purr when content like when a mother nurses the cubs. Similar to domestic cats, these big cats also have the ability to purr while exhaling and inhaling. A cougar is believed to be the largest purring cat.