Dogs Are Manipulable, Cats Are Manipulative, and Both Act Like Babies

By Sarah Zhang | April 28, 2012 10:54 am

spacing is important
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.

[dogs via PLoS ONE, cats via Improbable Research]

Cat and dog image via Shutterstock / Michael Pettigrew

MORE ABOUT: cats, dogs, domestication, pets
  • Kevin ‘Bynk’ Bingham

    I saw a documentary once about the difference between wolves and dogs. Dogs to some extent watch and imitate owners. Wolves don’t have this behavior. This fits right in with “ostensive cues”, and is why we keep dogs in our homes and not wolves. 

  • Anonymous

    And then dogs will just sit beside you chair, slightly smiling, and quietly stare at you. Until you figure out what they want.

  • Marta Fernandes

    I have 4 cats and I’d have to say only one of them uses that solicitation purr. It’s also not really that annoying because he only does it when I’m already preparing their food, so it never lasts for longer than a couple of minutes. They can be really, really annoying when they want to eat though, but it’s not by purring. One of them will meow incessantly, while another will just sit really close to me and will either stare at me for the longest time with pleading eyes (1 to 2 hours isn’t uncommon) or will continuously rub his head against my laptop.

  • Vegdaze

    Dogs have owners ; cats have staff!

  • Doug Alder

    Having been the servant to cats all my life I have, like the best aristocratic servant staff, learned to ignore the “cry embedded in the purr”

  • Boxerbuddy4

    I swear my dogs tell time. They always seem to know when it’s time to eat. One will sit by the dog dish and the other will lick me like crazy until I feed them and it seems to be about the same time each day.

    • Laurel

       I was encouraged to feed my dog at different times every days to clear this fanaticism

  • Irene Beech

    I have a cat who just says: “Eh”, very loudly,  when he wants something and he repeats that every few seconds until he gets what he wants.

    • Tonix1

      we have a dog that just coughs comes to your feet and coughs when she wants to eat.

  • Jonathan

    “Anyways”? What do dogs have to say about the illiteracy of journalists?

  • Julia

    Wow, was that article written by a dog person or what?

  • Judy Bond

    I have always had cats yet I have no idea what this writer is talking about regarding “this solicitation purr” 

  • Morgan Shafer

    I understand what the authors are trying to say, I think, about “manipulable” vs “manipulative” behaviors, but I don’t think the food example is a very good one. My cats are also very interested in the food I eat! Also, I think that in addition to the influence we have over them in the food example, dogs are in return very manipulative in their behavior around our food: they don’t call it begging for a reason. Their example of a dog looking in the same direction we look is a better example. Same thing with pointing–a dog will look in the direction we point, whereas most cats won’t (although I did once have a cat that would). And lest that be considered a sign of one species being more intelligent than the other, I saw a PBS documentary on this very topic, and they did the pointing experiment with dogs and chimpanzees–and where the dogs would look where the humans would point, the chimps would not. Perhaps the latter were too cynical.

  • Caper7860

    This article gives two opposing examples that reinforce some stereotypical ideas about cats and dogs.  The dog example conveys the interest dogs have in their owners whereas the cat examples conveys cats’ interest in themselves.  I love dogs and cats and find that dogs can be quite manipulative when they want something.  Cats can also be quite engaged with their humans regardless of whether they follow a gaze or not (and some do).  

  • Shobhitsrivastava 1155

    i think that means cats r more intelligent as they make their own decisions rather than being an imitating puppet. and i’ve seen dogs wagging their tails and making “dog face” when they want something and it is very hard 2 ignore that. Also i would say that this topic is very stereotypical as how “cats own a human” and “cats have servants”.In reality every cats has different personality, I’ve 2 cats my male cat shonu he never purrs but meows at a louder pitch when he is hungry while my she-cat julie only purrs when i hug and caress her and is very possesive(affectionately) about me and won’t let shonu on my the above theory of “solicitation purr”doesn’t hold universally and is not consistent.and many owners like the relaxing sound of a cat purring


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