Can Lions Purr?

I came across the above illustration of a lioness with her cubs and I wondered if lions can purr like house cats.

I did some research and learned that historically, people believed there were two kinds of cats:

  1. cats that can purr but not roar, like house cats, and
  2. cats that can roar but not purr, like lions.

That’s actually where things stood for decades. But then some people noticed that lions can make a purring sound similar to house cats!

As it happens, many mammals can make a sound like purring — including bears and squirrels — but there are differences from a house cat’s purring. For example, a lion’s purring can only be heard when the lion is breathing out, unlike a house cat’s purring, which can be heard when the cat is breathing in and out.

Where should we draw the line between “purring in the house cat sense of the word” and “purring, but not like a house cat”? What should count as purring?

Image source: The illustration was in the Encyclopaedia londinensis, or, Universal dictionary of arts, sciences, and literature v.7 (1810). I noticed it when perusing the Biodiversity Heritage Library collection on Flickr. You might notice that the original caption read, “The Lioness and Whelps.” Apparently lion cubs used to be called whelps.


Peters, G. (2002). Purring and similar vocalizations in mammals. Mammal Review, 32(4), 245–271. is A whole website about purring! It lists many scholarly papers and books.

A friendly human.