Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cats exploit owners by purring, University of Sussex research

Of course, all of us already know that our kitties can manipulate us with their purrs and soft taps with a paw, but now it's official: Cats use different purrs for different behaviors they want to teach us! This study says that some can be 'very' annoying☺

Cat owners may have suspected as much, but it seems our feline friends have found a way to manipulate us humans. (Click on the link and it will take you to the web page where the author's kitty, Pepo can be seen and heard doing some of his best work.)

Researchers at the University of Sussex have discovered that cats use a "soliciting purr" to overpower their owners and garner attention and food.

Unlike regular purring, this sound incorporates a "cry", with a similar frequency to a human baby's.

The team said cats have "tapped into" a human bias - producing a sound that humans find very difficult to ignore.

Dr Karen McComb, the lead author of the study that was published in the journal Current Biology, said the research was inspired by her own cat, Pepo.

"He would wake me up in the morning with this insistent purr that was really rather annoying," Dr McComb told BBC News.

Larry the cat
Impossible to resist: cats use sounds that humans are "highly sensitive" to

"After a little bit of investigation, I discovered that there are other cat owners who are similarly bombarded early in the morning."

While meowing might get a cat expelled from the bedroom, Dr McComb said that this pestering purr often convinced beleaguered pet lovers to get up and fill their cat's bowl.

To find out why, her team had to train cat owners to make recordings of their own cats' vocal tactics - recording both their "soliciting purrs" and regular, "non-soliciting" purrs.

"When we played the recordings to human volunteers, even those people with no experience of cats found the soliciting purrs more urgent and less pleasant," said Dr. McComb.

How annoying?

She and her team also asked the volunteers to rate the different purrs - giving them a score based on how urgent and pleasant they perceived them to be.

"We could then relate the scores back to the specific purrs," explained Dr McComb. "The key thing (that made the purrs more unpleasant and difficult to ignore) was the relative level of this embedded high-frequency sound."

Stan the cat
They learn how to do this, and then they do it quite deliberately
Karen McComb, University of Sussex

"When an animal vocalises, the vocal folds (or cords) held across the stream of air snap shut at a particular frequency," explained Dr McComb. The perceived pitch of that sound depends on the size, length and tension of the vocal folds.

"But cats are able to produce a low frequency purr by activating the muscles of their vocal folds - stimulating them to vibrate," explained Dr McComb.

Since each of these sounds is produced by a different mechanism, cats are able to embed a high-pitched cry in an otherwise relaxing purr.

"How urgent and unpleasant the purr is seems to depend on how much energy the cat puts into producing that cry," said Dr McComb.

Previous studies have found similarities between a domestic cat's cry and the cry of a human baby - a sound that humans are highly sensitive to.

Dr McComb said that the cry occurs at a low level in cats' normal purring. "But we think that (they) learn to dramatically exaggerate it when it proves effective in generating a response from humans."

She added that the trait seemed to most often develop in cats that have a one-on-one relationship with their owners.

"Obviously we don't know what's going on inside their minds," said Dr McComb. "But they learn how to do this, and then they do it quite deliberately."

So how does Dr McComb feel about Pepo now she knows he has been manipulating her all these years?

"He's been the inspiration for this whole study, so I'll forgive him - credit where credit's due."


Noir in Texas said...

Ya know, humans need to studying us and just deal with us--they love us and they will NEVER know what's going on in our minds...heck, we're CATS! :)

Bruce said...

Finally we're getting some credit for being more than just a CAT!

The Cat Realm said...

Thank you for your comment. We understand that a lot of fellow blogging cats don't understand how we can be let out in an environment teaming with coyotes, bobcats, owls, rattlers, hawks, you name it....
We are all rescues who came from outside, and we aggressively refuse to be locked in, Notty actually broke out a few nights ago ( we ARE locked in at night!) but he is o.k.
And our staff believes in quality of life, not quantity, so they let us be part of our natural cat world: hunt, and be hunted.
It is not easy for them, believe me, but we cats appreciate it as we are just not the indoor kind of cats.... except Mrs. OZ, she actually decides to stay in even if she could go out!

Gattina said...

I love purrs. It calms my nervs, lol ! and it's so nice to cry in a cat fur and listen to a soft purring !

Angel and Kirby said...

That is interesting. I guess I have not been trained well enough by my two!

The Island Cats said...

And they spent money to do this research?? We coulda told them for free!

Amy said...

I read this article elsewhere and tried to notice a difference in my cats purrs, but honestly I can't tell. Now, the meows, squeaks, growls, etc - yep, can always tell the difference, but purrs, not so much!

pughy said...

I always knew that we are more than mere cats.. Now its official..

Hugs GJ xx

Teddy Bear said...

Boy, cats are SMART!

Teddy Bear

Fin said...

Crackpots ::Winks::

Anonymous said...

We knew it all along!

Katie and Da Katz said...

Yay!! We Read this too! The comments were even better.

There was one family with dogs and cats that were so in tune with their people and vice versa!

Thanks for commenting...How iz your ebay stuffoms? Any pointers?
I've sold at Amazon before.

While I'm getting my Amazon account sorted out and an E-Bay account started, I'm giving cat bloggers first dibs!!

The Mom @ the Katie Katz Place

Sharyn said...

It is too bad only cats are so superior, dogs are just not up ti snuff~!