Do Lions and Tigers Purr?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

There is actually some debate over this topic in the scientific community. Some biologists maintain that big cats such as lions and tigers cannot purr, because they have adapted special physical traits in order to be able to roar which preclude purring ability. Others believe that the big cats can and do purr, although they may not sound exactly like household cats. Study of big cats in a variety of environments appears to bear out the second theory, that they do in fact purr for many of the same reasons that smaller cats do.

There is some debate about weather big cats, such as lions and tigers, can purr.
There is some debate about weather big cats, such as lions and tigers, can purr.

The exact mechanism of purring is not completely understood. It is believed that it is accomplished with the use of the hyoid bone, a small flexible bone located in the neck. When the cat pushes air through its voicebox, it rattles the hyoid bone, creating the distinctive sound. Purring may also be caused by false vocal cords, located slightly behind the cat's actual vocal cords. The debate over how cats purr has greatly complicated the issue of whether or not big cats can do so.

Lions are said to purr to communicate with kittens.
Lions are said to purr to communicate with kittens.

Biologists who believe that big cats cannot purr generally support the hyoid bone theory. They argue that big cats have developed a slightly different hyoid bone, which is less flexible, and thus able to serve as the mechanism behind the roar. The sacrifice in flexibility, however, means that the hyoid could not be used to purr. However, other biologists believe that big cats actually can purr, although they can only do so when exhaling, rather than continuously, like a house cat or smaller cat breeds. This may be accomplished through limited vibration of the hyoid, or through the false vocal cords.

The purring noise made by big cats undoubtedly sounds different than the sound of smaller cats. It resembles a cough or a growl, which may have led to confusion about whether or not big cats actually purr. Both lions and tigers purr when they are with a group, and use the noise to communicate with kittens as well. Like a smaller cat, the purr of large cats may resonate at a frequency which promotes healing, explaining why cats make this sound when they are injured or distressed.

Many textbooks state that only small cats, members of the Felix genus, can purr. However, it appears that cats in the genus Panthera, such as lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars, also do so. It also believed these big cats may not be able to purr while meowing, growling, or eating, unlike smaller cats.

Some argue that only smaller cats are capable of purring.
Some argue that only smaller cats are capable of purring.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Mountain lions do purr. I know someone who owned two of them back in the 70s/80s and they purred. I think they are the only big cats that do.


@literally45-- I think chuffing is purring as well because big cats make this sound under the same circumstances that small cats purr. They often do it when they meet a family member or a partner. Moms do it to calm and soothe their cubs. It's a type of hello and sign of affection, just as the purr is.


It makes sense that lions and tigers cannot purr. If they did, then cats would be able to roar as well.

What lions and tigers do is they chuff. Chuffing is like snorting, it's not purring.


I think cats belong to the cheetah family. Can cheetahs purr?


We learned about the big cats in class. The big cats are jaguars, leopards, lions and tigers. I knew they were similar to cats but they are even more similar than I expected. They don't just purr, they can also hiss and say a sort of "meow" as well. I guess that is why they are called big cats.


I have been wondering about this for such a long time! My cat likes to purr when she is happy or when she wants something from me (chicken). I have read in many places that cats purr when distressed, but I think they do for different reasons and not every cat is the same. I suppose the same is true for lions and tigers too.

Different ones might purr for different reasons and at certain times. That might also be a reason for the confusion experienced by some scientists on whether or not they purr.


This was really an interesting article. I always wondered if all cats purred including wild cats. I understand why small cats purr. They usually purr when they are happy to be around someone.

This happens to me every time I visit my father in law and pet his cat. The cat is purring the whole time that I am there He also moves really close to my hand and rubs up against it.

It is really cute how cats show affection. This cat also moves his head towards me so that I could continue to scratch his head. He always walks toward me the minute that I walk into the house. I think that it is a myth that cats are not affectionate because this cat is so sweet.

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