A Message from our Cat Overlords

19 July 2009
Posted by Chris Smith.

It's a well-known fact that humans don't own their cats - rather the cats own us. This is why I, Dr Kat, am a dog person.  And now a report in this week's Current Biology reveals how our feline overlords manage to persuade foolish humans to do their bidding.

Six week old KittenThis is research from Karen McComb at the University of Sussex, who got her inspiration from her own cat, who wakes her up in the mornings with an insistent purr for food that's impossible to resist.  And as a scientist who studies vocal communication, she was intrigued.

By studying recordings of cat noises, McComb realised that cats were mixing together a purr with a more insistent cry for food.  And when they played the recordings to people, these cries were judged to sound more insistent and needy that normal purring, even to people without a cat.  When the team altered the recordings to remove the high-pitched crying element, people found the sounds less urgent.

Normal Purr Soliciting Purr with hidden cry

Most animals, including humans, have an innate sensitivity to needy cries - which is why we respond to crying babies or mewling puppies or kittens.  If an adult cat just meows, we tend to get annoyed, but by hiding a high-pitched cry inside a low-pitched purr, it helps to send the signal that they're hungry and need feeing, without the human owner realising they're being manipulated.

McComb thinks that although cats have a small amount of the high-pitched cry in their normal purr, they learn to dramatically exaggerate in order to get what they want.  She also suggests that not all cats use this form of purring at all, and it might be used mainly by cats with a one-on-one relationship with their owner, rather than those in large households, where a loud meow might be more effective.

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