July 21, 2009 / 5:39 AM / 10 years ago

Cats find purr-fect way to manipulate owners

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Cats have found a way to make their adoring owners do exactly as they want — adding a little whiney cry into their purr, according to a British study.

Researchers at the University of Sussex analyzed the different purring noises made by cats and found that felines can change their normal purr, effectively adding in a kitten-like cry, until their owners get out of bed to feed them.

“When you hear this purr, you find it difficult to ignore, you find it annoying but you are not really consciously aware of why that is,” researcher Karen McComb, a mammal communication expert at the university, told Reuters Television.

“It is a sort of cry embedded in a vocalization that we otherwise think of as pleasant and it meanwhile sort of wears us down. It is sort of tapping into our sensory biases and eventually, just to make it stop, we get up and we go and feed the cat.”

McComb said she first discovered what she calls the “solicitation purr” when she became curious about her own cat Pepo’s behavior in the early mornings.

She made a video recording of Pepo as he sat on her bed with a fixed stare issuing a distinctive and insistent purr. Pepo would continue this purr until McComb got out of bed to feed him.

When comparing this purr with the normal contented purr, or “non-solicitation purr,” McComb found it to be very different.

“It’s a purr, but you can hear a whiney undertone and it is very noisy,” she said.

To prove it wasn’t just Pepo who did this, McComb found nine other cats whose owners reported similar behavior.

The recordings were played back to 50 other people, not all of whom were cat owners, and 80 percent of them found the solicitation purr more urgent and unpleasant.

The frequency of the solicitation purr is similar to that of a human baby cry and that is what McComb thinks prompts owners to pander to their pets’ demands rather than ignore them — it taps into their nurturing instinct.

McComb believes that cats learn this trick in their lifetime with the sound developed more in cats that have a one-on-one relationship with their owner.

She said cats tended to use this solicitation purr in situations where they had a captive audience and where they had learned, perhaps by accident, that this purr was effective in getting their owners attention or to get them to move.

“They just learn to exaggerate the cry in the purr in a way that they manage to get what they want,” said McComb whose findings appear in the journal Current Biology.

McComb acknowledged that in some ways her research may sound obvious to cat owners but she said it will go a long way to helping understand more about communication between species, where one species taps into the sensory bias of another.

Reporting by Reuters Television, Editing by Miral Fahmy

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