The cat’s purr is iconic and recognized as a symbol of contentment to all cat lovers. But there aren’t any “true” big cats that can actually purr (in the strictest sense), and the reason for this is that roaring and purring are mutually exclusive.
This means that if a cat can purr, it cannot roar by default, and the same is true for those that can roar. Big cats of the Panthera and Neofelis Genera (lions, tigers, leopards, and clouded leopards) can make a whole range of noises that convey feelings of pleasure, such as chuffs, rolling rumbles, and throaty murmurs.
Big cats will make these vocalizations for various reasons, and they seem happy to let other cats know they’re feeling good.
One of the “big cats” that can purr, the Cheetah, will often purr to other Cheetahs, Cheetah cubs, and even caretakers to show contentment, usually with chirrup and meows as well. Cheetahs are one of only two “big” cats that can meow, the other being the Cougar.
Cheetahs and Cougars are known as “big cats” colloquially, but in reality, they’re more akin to oversized “small” cats, being closer to felids like Ocelots and Bobcats. These smaller cats can also purr as they share the same hyoid bone structure and vibrating voice boxes that allow continuous purring to occur.
Why Can’t Big Cats Purr?
The simple answer to this is that big cats have different equipment. Both big cats (of the Panthera genus) and small cats (of the Felis genus) have a noise-making hyoid bone in their throats, but this bone needs to be delicate and solid to resonate enough to purr.
In big cats, the hyoid bone is connected to the skull with strong, flexible ligaments. These ligaments, along with the partially-ossified (partially hardened) nature of the hyoid in big cats, means that the bone has a larger flex, making deeper, rolling vocalizations—roars.
In smaller cats, the hyoid is fully-ossified and delicate, allowing it to oscillate and resonate in the throat with each breath, in and out. This makes a comforting, continuous purr that can almost seem involuntary at times.
Which Noises Do Big Cats Make?
Big cats have many noises they use to communicate, as well as non-verbal communication, just as domestic cats do. Verbally, big cats use different groupings of vocalizations meant to convey different things:
Big cats also use nonverbal communication like house cats do, rubbing on trees and scratching on the ground to mark scents with pheromones. Body language also plays a big role in communication in big and small cats, with Tigers even having two contrasting black and white spots on their ears that show when they bow their heads (to drink, for example), known as “eye spots.”
What Is the Largest Cat That Can Purr?
The Cougar is the biggest cat that can still purr and meow. Despite being over 90 centimeters tall and weighing up to 220 pounds, Cougars have a vast vocal range, and they purr for the same reasons a humble house cat would.
Cougars also have an infamous scream that humans can hear from miles away. This caterwauling is used to communicate over long distances when in heat, and alongside this, the Cougar makes very soft mews and purrs to talk to and reassure their cubs.
Why Do Big Cats Purr?
Cats that can purr, including “big” cats such as Cheetahs and Cougars, purr for various reasons, and they’re not all communication. Cats learn to purr at a few days old, and this early purring is used to communicate with their mother, and she will purr back to them. When they’re older, cats will purr when they’re contented or happy, but they also may purr when in pain.
This “pain purr” may be linked to faster healing and pain relief, as the low, continuous frequency of the purr can actively repair damaged tissues, promote new tissue growth and regulate the cats breathing. In addition, cats purring in pain may also do so to self-soothe.
Big cats, in the most specific sense, cannot purr because they can roar. Cats of the Panthera genus include Lions, Tigers, Leopards, Jaguars, and Snow Leopards. These big cats don’t have the delicate hyoid bones needed to produce a resonating purr. Instead, they can produce guttural roars that can be heard over long distances. The biggest “small” cat that can purr is the Cougar, which can not only purr but can also meow, along with the Cheetah.
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