Do Cats Only Purr When They’re Happy? Not Necessarily

Your cat purrs when they’re happy and meows when they’re hungry, right? Not necessarily. A new study suggests that cat parents may not be as attuned to their feline companion’s vocal signals as they thought (1). 

In particular, people have a harder time interpreting cues that a cat is unhappy than they do recognizing that a cat is content. In fact, nearly one-third of study participants incorrectly identified that a cat was discontent, whereas 90 percent of participants were able to tell when a cat was happy.  

For the study, 630 participants watched 24 cat video clips that showed cats in different emotional or behavioral states. Categories included cats who were content, discontent, seeking food or attention, or in hunting mode. The clips were presented as visuals only, vocals only, and then with a combination of both. People who listened only to a cat’s vocal cues were most often wrong, followed by the visuals-only group. Those who paid attention to both vocal and visual cues scored the highest in terms of being able to identify a cat’s mood. 

So what does this mean for cat parents? When it comes to reading a cat’s emotional state, your best bet is to listen and watch their behavior at the same time. 

Why are cats so hard to read?

“Cats communicate subtly — anyway to most of us humans, they seem to be subtle communicators,” says Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant and author of Naughty No More! Thus, she says, it’s easy for a movement or a brief change in ear, eye, tail, or other body parts to be missed or misinterpreted. 

“In addition to being subtle, communication cues from cats are complex, incorporating together other cues from ears, eyes, tails, vocalizations, body positioning, and movements,” Krieger adds. And a cat’s cue may mean entirely different things, depending on the context. Purring is a great example of this, she says, noting that cats purr when they are content, but they sometimes purr when they are very ill.

Many people also interpret communication signals based on their own human experiences. “They anthropomorphize—attributing human characteristics to cat behaviors and communication cues,” Krieger says. An example of this is saying a cat is mad at their owner when they pee on the bed. There are many reasons cats might urinate on beds, Krieger says, and being mad at their people is not one of them.

Some people also misinterpret signals, basing their interpretations of cues from other species. Tail wagging is a good example. “When dogs exuberantly wag their tails, they are happy to see their people,” Krieger says. “When cats quickly swish their tails, they do not want to be approached.”

Unfortunately, signs of illness in cats are often missed and can be sometimes misinterpreted. “Cats have evolved subtle communication cues—it helps them survive in the wild,” Krieger says. “Community cats and small wild cats, although predators, are also prey to larger predators. It’s important for these felines to not show they are ill, weak, or injured.”

How can we better understand our cats?

Try not to attribute human characteristics to cat behavior or come to conclusions about what a cat is communicating based on your own experiences with another species, Krieger recommends. It’s also important to look at context, both before and during the communication cue. 

Krieger also suggests asking yourself, what is happening in the environment? Be aware of anything stressful or startling that has occurred, such as another animal or a loud noise. Are there other people around or are you alone with the cat? 

“It also helps to understand what their cats are communicating by looking at all of the communication cues,” Krieger adds, “no matter how subtle.”


  1. Charlotte de Mouzon, Romain Di-Stasi, Gérard Leboucher. Human perception of cats’ communicative cues: human‐cat communication goes multimodal. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 270, 2024, 106137, ISSN 0168-1591.

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