We humans think we are mighty clever when we come up with amusing captions for pictures of cute kitties. It turns out they’ve got us wrapped around their little claws.
Researchers in Britain have discovered cats are able to tailor their purring sounds to manipulate humans. There are significant differences between their ‘standard’ purring, which humans often find comforting, and the sounds they make when they want feeding.
The “feed me” purr incorporates a sound with a similar frequency to a human baby crying. The result is that people unwittingly feel obliged to respond. It’s not clear whether this is because it stirs our natural parental instincts, or because it is such an urgent and unpleasant sound that we feel obliged to respond to silence it. However, the trickery even works on people who don’t own cats.
The trick is pulled off by the cat using the muscles surrounding its vocal chords to alter the pitch of the sounds it makes. This technique – which isn’t possible in most animals – is why cats are able to purr. In the process, the cat’s vocal chords get freed up to make high pitched noises which means they can make both sounds at once, allowing the vocal chords to embed a cry in an otherwise comforting purr. Were the cat to simply make the crying sound, humans would be more likely to simply shoo it away.
Dr Karen McComb of the University of Sussex asked cat trainers to record the sounds of 10 cats in different situations, then tested the sounds on 50 volunteers to see how they responded. She told the BBC that while a normal purr contains a quiet cry, the cats appeared to have learned to intentionally exaggerate the cry once they realized it would get a response.