How you doin’?
After thousands of years living in our homes, cats and dogs have gotten pretty good at tuning into human social cues—as good as human babies anyways.
Dogs, with their adorable puppy faces, are easily swayed by the actions of humans. A new study in PLoS ONE shows that dogs will prefer a plate of food preferred by a person, even if that plate has less food on it. Cats, on the other hand, have an especially annoying “solicitation” purr that they deploy when they want something from their owners, much like (though quieter than) a hungry baby that will not stop screaming. Pet owners who fancy themselves parents may actually be onto something.
Although babies can’t understand words, they are good at following body language and the gazes of their parents—what are called “ostensive cues.” Dogs do the same thing; when they see you looking in a particular direction, for example, they look there too. Researchers in this new study show that dogs made their decisions based on these ostensive cues as well. They began by presenting the dogs with two plates with unequal amounts of food. Then an experimenter would look at and pick up one plate, saying “Oh wow, this is good, this is so good!” (Not something we expect to hear in the context of an experiment but okay…) Left alone, dogs would pick the plate with more food, but they were willing to forgo the extra chow if humans showed more attention to the plate of less food. Good doggie.
Cats though—they’re are master manipulators of humans. In a paper titled “The cry embedded within the purr,” researchers recorded feline purring and identified a special signature that made certain purrs especially urgent and unpleasant to humans. It’s so awful that you’ll do anything to make it stop. (Listen here, at your own risk.) The sound of this solicitation purr is especially inharmonic, and cat owners are actually more attuned to it than non-owners, so there’s no learning to just ignore it. Parents with babies would probably say the same thing.
Interspecies and baby communication remind us just how much meaning can be conveyed through ostensive and nonverbal cues. We usually think words when we think about language, but human adults are just as attuned to body language and tone of voice, even if we’re not consciously thinking about it. So pay attention to where you’re looking and how you’re talking next time you’re trying to manipulate someone.
Cat and dog image via Shutterstock / Michael Pettigrew