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Why Does My Dog Purr?

Does your dog sometimes emit a sound that makes you question his true identity as a member of the canine species?

Does the sound resemble that same low, sub-bass, and relentlessly vibratory noise that we are accustomed to hearing solely from cats—the sound we call a “purr?”

If you answered yes to either of these two questions, and it bothers you that your macho dog is emanating some of the dulcet sounds we associate strictly with those in the feline group, you can rest easy.

Dogs, despite the noises they may make to the contrary, do not purr.

However, dogs have been known to send out a barely-audible, deep-toned noise of their own, one that can often resemble the feline “purr.”

To make more sense of all of this, in this article we will describe and further define the low-pitched sounds that are often made by our beloved dogs, and outline the many reasons they make them.

Along the way, we will also give some tips for addressing the root causes of the doggie and puppy “purr.”

About the “Purr” Noise Made by Dogs

Imagine this.

You just brought home your new rescue dog from the animal shelter, had him examined by your vet, and you are now settling in for a relaxing night at home, just the two of you.

Suddenly, your new dog begins to make a noise that remarkably resembles the sound of purring.

This can be jarring for some dog owners, especially if this is the first dog they have ever owned.

They may even feel short-changed, convinced there was some type of mix-up.

“How,” they ask, “is my dog purring?”

Although this scenario was dramatically enhanced for effect, you’d probably be surprised by how many actual dog owners turn to the Internet and their favorite search engine to ask the question, “why is my dog purring?”

And the answer?

As we mentioned in the introduction, of course dogs do not purr.

That’s a “cat thing” and purring is not in a dog’s DNA.

They are, however, known to emit a sound of their own that resembles purring—a sound that, in reality, is nothing but a soft growl or low-toned whimper.

Now, the word “growl” has its own problems.

Most of us connect growling to a dog that is angry or protective.

It’s a sound we hear regularly from watch dogs and the mean stray dogs we encounter on the street—just before they ready themselves to attack us!

This, too, is not always the case.

The low, deep growling we often hear from dogs—the type that sometimes resembles purring in sound only—can happen for a lot of reasons, including excitement, anxiety, sadness and, yes, sometimes anger or discontent.

When cats make a purring sound they are doing so out of contentment or happiness. Full stop.

You will seldom, for example, hear a cat purring when it’s angry or excited.

This is what differentiates a cat’s purr from the low, hard-to-hear soft growl of a dog or puppy.

It’s the timing of the noise.

So, the next time you encounter someone who brags (or complains) about the ultra-adorable purring noise coming from their beloved dog, you can confidently reply, “hogwash!” “Dogs do not purr,” you will intelligently say to this person, “it’s actually just a soft growl.”

However, if you want to relay to this person the many reasons why a dog may emit this low, soft growl—or tell them how to deal with each of these reasons—you need to continue reading in the next section.

Why Do Dogs Purr (Emit a Soft Growl)?

So, we have established now that dogs do not actually purr.

Instead, they make a soft, deep growling noise—one that can represent a variety of feelings, emotions and attitudes.

To make this easier to understand, here we have outlined, in no particular order of frequency or importance, the many reasons a dog may growl in this soft manner.

Hopefully, this will help you identify the root cause for the noise they are making, and take action where action is needed.

Anger or Discontent

Since many people already associate a dog’s growl with anger or discontent, we thought we would get this one out of the way first.

Yes, sometimes dog can emit this “purr-like” sound when they are discontented, irritated or just starting to feel anger.

We use the words, “just starting to feel anger,” because when a dog truly works up to actual anger the growl sound it makes tends to become much more audible and will usually include barking as well, the latter a type of warning sound that the anger threshold has been met.

Instead of focusing on actual “anger” in this brief section, let’s look closer at the words “discontented” and “irritated,” and give an example or two that might include these feelings or emotions.

When dogs are very, very sleepy—especially older dogs that are set in their ways—the last thing they want to do is play.

In fact, any person or pet that tries to force a sleepy, mature dog to abandon its nap for playtime will often hear the irritation it causes this animal firsthand—irritation that comes in the form of a “purr-like” growl, a growl that essentially says “leave me the heck alone.”

If you have a dog, one you implicitly trust not to bite you, you can test this out for yourself.

The next time your dog settles into a warm, daytime nap near the window, try playing with its paws or ears.

Do it gently so as not to cause your dog any harm, but repeat these “wake up” attempts at a regular interval.

Our guess is that, in no time at all, your dog is likely to the make the sound for which you are intently listening:  the low, deep growl that says, “get away from me, I’m napping.”

Naturally, the best thing you can do to stop your dog from becoming irritated in this way is to, well, not irritate him.

And if the irritation is coming from another pet in your house, do your best to separate the two animals before irritation turns into all-out anger.

Excitement

Unlike cats, who make their purring noise only when they are contented and coddled, dogs can emit their soft growl (that sounds like purring) when they are excited; when they are ready and raring to have some old-fashioned fun.

My little Westie personified this behavior.

Each and every time the two of us played tug-of-war with one of his chew toys, I could hear the low, deep growl of excitement.

He (Charlie) was also known to make this noise before walks and just prior to his nighttime meal, as if he had a timer in his head that told him it was 6:00 PM.

In addition to buddy time, walks and mealtime, there are a couple of other “exciting events (or those dogs find exciting)” that might produce this purr-like sound in dogs and puppies, including:

  • Outdoor playtime. Dogs are very intuitive.  They constantly watch us to determine patterns.  And when they sense that outside playtime is near, either in the backyard or at a dog park, you are likely to drum up their purr-sounding growl.
  • Homecoming.  When your dog hears the door of your car slam shut, or the sound of the garage door opening as you return from work, that bass-like growl is sure to accompany his excitement.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a big problem for lots and lots of dogs.

It especially affects some shelter dogs who might have been rescued from a prior situation that was abusive.

Anxiety can cause this aforementioned sound in dogs, especially when their anxiety becomes very pronounced.

Situations that can bring about severe anxiety—and a soft growl—in dogs include:

  • Strangers.  Strangers can be giant cause of anxiety in dogs.  This means strange people and strange pets.  Dogs become accustomed to a pattern that gives them a certain mixture of freedom and restriction, but when strangers enter the mix, this pattern can become disrupted, resulting in anxiety.
  • Separation anxiety.  Separation anxiety is a problem in about 20 percent of dogs. When the “preferred” owner is out of the house, it can cause them to be upset, resulting in any number of unwanted behaviors, including chewing, urinating inside, hiding, and, of course, the low-pitched growl we’ve been describing.
  • New house.  Just as strange people and pets can cause anxiety in dogs, so, too, will a new environment.

Anxiety can be very problematic in dogs.

Fortunately, veterinarians and dog trainers have come to better understand the condition in recent years, and help is available, either through medication, behavior modification, or both.

Sadness

Last, but definitely not least, is sadness—another emotional feeling that can bring about the low-pitched growl that resembles a “purr.”

Sadness goes hand in hand with discontent.  It presents itself in a variety of situations, including when the primary owner has to leave the house, bedtime (for younger dogs), trips to the veterinarian or groomer, and even potty breaks outside.

To deal with sadness when it comes to events like these, try making a game out of them.

Anything you can do to alter your pet’s feelings about certain unpleasant events and circumstances will make him a happier and healthier dog.

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