Purring is something that we associate with cats, but not every cat is capable of purring. Most big cats, like jaguars, can’t purr at all due to the structure of the hyoid bones in their throat. But the mountain lion — also known as a puma — is one of the biggest cats that can purr, along with the cheetah.
Mountain lions aren’t actually considered “big cats” in the official scientific classification sense of the word, and their designation as “big cats” is a result of their purring ability. To help clear up any confusion and explain how cats purr, this guide will answer commonly asked questions about purring cats and why mountain lions are one of them.
What Is a Mountain Lion?
One of the most recognizable wild cats in the U.S.A. is the mountain lion. You might also recognize them by their other names, including cougar, puma, or catamount. No matter what they’re called, the mountain lion is the biggest small cat that you can find in the U.S.A.
They’re not as prolific as they once were, due to bounty hunting during the 1900s, but they’re still found in many states across the country, as well as in Canada and Chile.
The mountain lion is easy to recognize by their solid-colored fur that ranges from tawny, reddish, or silver-gray, depending on the climate where they live. As solitary hunters, they prefer to stay well out of the way of humans and are rarely seen with other cougars except when mothers are raising young or during the breeding season.
How Do Cats Purr?
Despite it being an iconic part of what makes cats so adorable, not many people know why or how they purr. While the “why” part of the question is still a point of discussion for scientists, the “how” is relatively simple to answer.
A cat’s ability to purr or roar depends on how the hyoid bone in their throat resonates. The hyoid bone is a set of delicate, U-shaped, twig-like bones found at the back of the throat that support the tongue and larynx. Since purring and roaring aren’t mutually exclusive, the formation of the hyoid bones differs between big and small cats.
Small cats — like mountain lions, cheetahs, and domestic cats — have rigid hyoid bones. When they purr, their larynx vibrates and the rigid hyoid bone resonates too. The way that the bone resonates is also what makes it possible for their purring to continue as they breathe in and out, with only a slight pitch shift.
Do Big Cats Purr?
When scientists first began studying cat species in the 19th century, the easiest way to split the species into groups was by using their ability to purr or roar. Since cats that can purr aren’t physically capable of roaring and vice versa, it led to the two major cat classifications: big or “roaring” cats and their much smaller “purring” cat cousins.
Roaring cats are part of the Panthera genera of cats, and they have a much less rigid hyoid bone. Unlike in purring cats, the hyoid bone in big cats is surrounded by cartilage. This cartilage makes the bone more flexible than it is in other cat species, like the mountain lion.
While most big cats — except for the lion — are more prone to expressing themselves with sounds like snarling, hissing, or coughing, they all have the same flexible hyoid bone. They can’t purr, but they can produce that deep, powerful roar that never fails to get the hair on the back of your neck standing on end.
Are Mountain Lions Big Cats?
At first glance, mountain lions appear to be big cats. As they are much bigger than domestic cats, bobcats, and other small wild cats in the U.S.A., mountain lions look like they have the same “big cat” designation as lions, tigers, and jaguars. However, mountain lions fall into the Felis genera rather than the Panthera family like official big cats do.
Members of the Felis genera are also known as “purring cats,” and mountain lions can purr just as well as the domestic cat curled up on your lap.
Despite their size rivaling some of the official big cat breeds, mountain lions aren’t considered a member of the big cat family, Panthera. Since they have a rigid hyoid bone, the species is incapable of creating that guttural roar that we recognize from big cats like the African lion.
As members of the Felis genera of cat, or “purring cat” family, the mountain lion can’t roar but they can purr!