How cats manipulate us

A new study in the journal Current Biology looks at how cats manipulate us. University of Sussex psychologist Karen McComb, an expert in animal communications, identified how cats add an urgent, whining meow to their normal purr to get what they want. From a press release:
"The embedding of a cry within a call that we normally associate with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response," said Karen McComb of the University of Sussex. "Solicitation purring is probably more acceptable to humans than overt meowing, which is likely to get cats ejected from the bedroom." She suggests that this form of cat communication sends a subliminal sort of message, tapping into an inherent sensitivity that humans and other mammals have to cues relevant in the context of nurturing their offspring...

McComb said she thinks this cry occurs at a low level in cats' normal purring, "but we think that cats learn to dramatically exaggerate it when it proves effective in generating a response from humans."
"House cats know what they want and how to get it from you"


  1. “[C]ats learn to dramatically exaggerate it when it proves effective in generating a response from humans.”

    In my experience, the same principle applies to co-habitants of any species.

    — MrJM

  2. How did the proposal for this study even get through the grant committee? This is obvious to any cat owner – or parent.

  3. I have a pug that makes snorting sounds like that. Pretty sure she is doing it for the same reasons.

  4. I remember reading the exact same heading but in reference to the toxoplasmosis bacteria causing humans to be more caring and therefore take better care of their cats or something crap like that… This is on the same level as that ;)

  5. #2: Exactly. We train pets, they train us, and there’s negotiation to find a compromise point. Ditto for kids, ditto for adults. You get the behavior you reinforce.

  6. There was a fascinating blurb in the NY Times the other day discussing a study about evolution of domestication, with a section on cats—arguing that cats were never truly domesticated, through a process of artificial selection, like dogs from wolves. Instead, it is suggested that domestic cats have evolved from wildcats by a process of natural selection.
    “The best inference is that wildcats exploiting human environments were simply tolerated by people, and, over time and space, they gradually diverged from their ‘wild’ relatives.”
    The NY Times blurb is here:
    The original scientific article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is here:

  7. This just in, animals are more intelligent than they’re given credit for. More at 11!

    Cats can be extremely effective at communication if you watch for it. I assume most animals are like this as well, I just have never lived with any of them.

    I think a lot of people have a habit of ignoring the cues from their pet, and act surprised when they do something ‘smart’. Or when trashy research like this gets attention.

  8. @ #10: After reading the blurb not sure I buy into domestication as an evolutionary trait. Especially considering that first generation of cat’s born away from humans become feral and averse to human contact. Feral cats are about as domestic as your average neighborhood possum.

  9. @10 and @13

    Well, cat are domesticated. For one things, their colour scheme is that of an domesticated mammal – undomesticated animals are quite distinct.

    And while cats go feral quite nicely, kittens of feral cats imprint very fast on humans when taken at the right time. Puppies of dogs actually seek out humans – dogs are the only species that can track and interpret humans “pointing” with their eyes – while wolf puppies can get quite time and be friendly but will usually fall back to wolf behaviour.

    Also, it’s very unlikely that dogs were bred to become domesticated – it’s far more likely that it was beneficial to their ancestor to get along with humans by eating their trash and staying near camp. Quite accidental, so at that time it was natural selection.

  10. How much money did they get for this study???? Come on over to my house… happens every morning.

  11. I think cats can communicate if they want to and if they think you are watching. I have lived with my feral cat for almost 8 years now, and he knows exactly how to tell me what he wants (like that he lost his toy under the dresser and that he needs my help to get it out).

    On the other hand, I adopted a 2 year old cat from the shelter who was obviously abused and she is often confused by most of the things I’m saying to her. I think she doesn’t communicate because she has never experienced that working out well for her.

  12. My cat knows not to meow until I’m already out of bed. He gets fed two times a day and the rest of the time he keeps his mouth shut. Maybe it’s breed specific, but i’ve never had the problems you guys talk about. I work for no feline!

  13. #3: Aristotle asserted that lightweight objects fall slower than heavy objects. Drop a rock, then drop a feather. Which one falls slower? It’s obvious!

    This was an accepted truth for almost 2000 years until Galileo decided to actually TRY dropping objects of different weights to see what happened.

    Obvious is not the same as true.

  14. #15 – Horses understand pointing too. I’m sure there are many species who do, if we took the time to pay attention.

    One of my most favorite quotes: Anyone who calls an animal stupid, was probably just outsmarted by that animal!

  15. I am pretty sure human babies also learn whatever they can do to get what they need.

    Some are good at playing out cuteness others throw some fiery tantrums.

  16. #22 – I was gonna make the same point. Science exists to, among other things, determine whether the things we consider “obvious” are actually true.

  17. My cats are mistresses of telling me what to do… and working out what I’m doing. Every time we need to lock them away or take them to the vet, we have to be very natural… and even then it never works. Dang smarty pants cats.

  18. Manipulation? Maybe. Communication? Yes. Until cats learn the Queen’s English or whatever native human tongue is spoken at home variations on the meow will have to do.

  19. #23: That’s the point. Feathers do fall more slowly than rocks. However, this isn’t because they’re lighter–it’s because they’re less aerodynamic. If you try dropping two objects of the same size and shape but different weight, they fall at the same speed. But because it’s so obvious that lighter objects fall slower than heavy ones, no one bothered to do that until Galileo.

  20. I think I speak for all cat “owners” on this board, when I say: “This is /news/??!”

  21. Is it manipulation if one knows what is going on? I think not. I am the owner of three female cats and 1)they do not do that low frequency sound (could it be because they have never been around a baby?); 2) of course they try to get your attention, indepedent as cats may be, if they live with a human they would need the human to feed them and to care for them, and as far as I know cats do not use articulated human language; 3) as it is pointed out in the study, the sound is learnt, therefore what the study really proves is not that cat manipulate (or other animals, for that matter), but that they learn, and that they do make the effort to communicate with us, which is more than can be said for some pet owners. So, congratulations!!!, that animals learn and communicate is been proved…again

  22. I have found that this is the same story with all co-habitants of any animal species… but especially crocodiles.

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