While dogs can often be taught new tricks, cat-owners will be all too aware that it can be very difficult to persuade them to do something they don’t want to do. Eddie Izzard summed it up best in his legendary Pavlov’s cat sketch, where felines are quite capable of outfoxing (outcatting?) eminent Welsh-Russian psychologists. Real cats may be less devious, but only just – new research suggests that they are very skilled at getting their human owners to do their bidding.
When they want food, domestic cats will often purr in a strangely plaintive way that their owners find difficult to ignore. By analysing the structure of these calls, Karen McComb from the University of Sussex has found out why. On the surface, the “solicitation purrs” are based on the same low-pitched sounds that contented moggies make, but embedded within them is a high-pitched signal that sounds like a cry or a meow. It’s this hidden signal that makes the purr of a hungry cat so irresistible to humans.
McComb has a long history of research into animal communication and she has studied the calls of African elephants, red deer, lions and macaques. But it was her own cat, Pepo (pictured above), who provided the inspiration for this study.
“He consistently woke me up in the mornings with very insistent purring,” she said. “I wondered why this purring sounded so annoying and was so difficult to ignore. Talking with other cat owners, I found that some of them also had cats who showed strikingly similar behaviour. As I was an academic who actually worked on vocal communication [in mammals], I had the right background, tools and collaborators to tackle this question directly.”