back to article Cats mix baby 'cry' with purr to score dinner

Hungry house cats have a way of changing their purr to manipulate humans into making a dash for the can opener, a new study shows. Karen McComb and her team of researchers from the University of Sussex say some cats mix a high-pitched cry within their purr specifically to push their owner's buttons when angling for a meal. …


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  1. E 2

    The beauty of the research funding systems

    I'm not normally one for poking at the reporters, but...

    That cats do stuff like this was reported in a new study some, IIRC, ten years ago. Cats mimic the sounds of new born babies when they want something from people. It was reported widely as a 'funny science story' on TV news and also in newspapers.

    I'm not suggesting that we need to "tighten the purse strings on those wastrel boffins", but anybody who watches or knows scientists ('specially those in the soft sciences) knows that publishing a cute puffball paper - that recaps existing knowledge - often counts for as much as publishing doing original research.

    Could a physicist get away with publishing new research that establishes, oh, I dunno, that light has both a wave and particle nature? Or a mathematician publishing new research that shows that, surprise, lines can only be locally parallel in non-euclidean geometries?

    How come journalists can?

  2. jake Silver badge


    "Not all cats, however, are in on the ruse: "It seems to most often develop in cats that have a one-on-one with their owners rather than in large household where there is a lot going on and such purring might get overlooked," she said. "Meowing seems to be more common in these situations.""

    Gee, you think? Animal training is, in general, about understanding the basic nature of the animal, and working within those characteristics[1], whilst simultaneously providing (hopefully) positive feedback based on what the animal is doing, when the animal is doing it. All our home-grown barn cats "speak" the same language. The ferals we've taken in don't do very well ... The home-grown cats don't like the "different" way that the ferals communicate.

    Same for the dawgs & horses. Our home-grown critters don't trust the newbies until they come around to our way of thinking. And no, force & violence aren't an option on our ranch ... it doesn't work in the long haul.

    "House cats the team studied also apparently had a tendency not to perform when strangers were on the premises. "Cat's exhibit this behavior in private with their owners, typically at anti-social times, such as first thing in the morning," McComb said."

    Bullshit. It's not the strangers, it's that the owners[2] are acting differently. If you keep it consistent, the animals will react EXACTLY the same, regardless of who is in attendance. Animal training is kinda like buying property ... Consistency, consistency, consistency.

    [1] Most animals don't actually think the way you and I do ... rather they are genetically programmed to react to a given situation. Real animal trainers take advantage of the human's ability to think combined with knowledge of the critter in question's natural instincts.

    [2] Dogs & horses are owned by the pack/herd leader (that's us), and they like it that way. Cats are solitary; they'll allow you to feed them if they like you and how you treat them. They move on if you put a foot wrong. Nobody has ever really owned a cat.

  3. J 3


    Who's the moron who coded their page, though? Some stupid JavaScript thing that is mostly not working...

  4. J 3

    Re: the purr

    Hm... I think my cat does do that purr sometimes, indeed. And it is just the two of us here, so that fits with the research.

  5. Quirkafleeg

    I for one…

    … on second thoughts, no – they own us all already. (Though I'm informed that in Soviet Russia, you own the cat.)

    Two cats here: one purrs as described, the other meows but lets you know that you're doing his bidding *well* with a short "PRRR!"

  6. Damian Skeeles
    Paris Hilton

    I was going to mock...

    ....but the more I think about it, I guess they have a point. (I suppose if I think about it more and more, I'll see more and more of a point, until I actually achieve a Ph.D in Cattism).

    Although I have to admit, I get the impression that the authors of this report differ from the crazy cat lady at the end of my street, only by their white lab coats. Hats doffed for them being able to make a career out of it, where most CCLs only manage to get voluntary work at the local cat shelter. How, pray, will this knowledge benefit mankind? Or felixkind? Or Go-Cat?

    What I'd genuinely be interested in, is whether the different tones of miaow a cat makes, such as 'inquisitive miaow', 'dejected miaow', are genuine attempts of communication by them - or attempts at mimicry of the sounds we make when talking to them - or just simple projections of our expectations of their 'emotions' into the noise that they make, and it's all in our mind..

    Or maybe I should worry less about the cat, and more about that report I have due tomorrow. It'll eat what it's given.

    Paris, because of the inevitable pussy jokes.

  7. Havin_it


    Ours has far more advanced tactics:

    1) Run up and down over human's prone form a few times to raise consciousness. If this doesn't work, obtain elevated position and sail gracefully downward towards family jewels.

    2) Position face approx. 2cm from gradually awakening human. Stare intently. If moulting, nuzzle. Bad breath always helps.

    3) Once human has attained visual focus, assume position on bedside table. Exchange glances between human and [glass of beverage/vase of foliage/stack of books and loose paperwork] perched on tabletop. Saunter slowly towards target. Rub casually against it. Push it ever-so-slightly towards edge of table.

    4) Push a little more...

    5) Little more...

    6) ?#$%@

    7) Profit!

    If a cunningly-inflected purr is the best the study subjects could come up with, frankly they are not fit to call themselves housecats.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Once again, someone actually PAID for this study?

    <slaps forehead> For the love of God, what the hell is wrong with the academics?

  9. Nate Amsden

    one of my cats does that

    one of my cats does that, I like the noise, though it doesn't really get me to feed it any sooner. The other cat is much more quiet, even when hungry.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Exactly, someone did PAY for the study.

    I read the short correspondence piece this morning. It seems to have been (part?) funded by the Waltham Foundation (the pet food people).

    Given the number of households who have a cat and the emotional attachments people form with them, why on earth wouldn't you want to know more about the communication that goes on?

  11. David 45

    Useless research

    I have to say that this type of research does seem to me to be a complete waste of money and other resources that could well be used for more worthwhile projects. Seems a tad frivolous - and, before I get accused of being a grumpy old man, yes, I DO have a well developed sense of humour!

  12. not'known@this.address

    Pussy want some fish? Nice piece of fish, pussy want some?

    As I sit typing this, our white cat has just wandered in and butted my leg, giving me a short "mraow" to let me know he wants his daily sachet of wet food (I better be quick typing this or it'll be followed in a few minutes by a subtle reminder in the shape of a longer, louder "mi-i-r-a-a-oww!" and claws in my leg).

    Said felonious feline has definite 'words' in his vocabulary - the noise he makes for "feed me" is different to the one for "let me out, I need the toilet and my litter tray needs changing again you lazy human slob". There are very noticable differences between the noises for "give me my wet food", "my water bowl needs refilling", "why does he get a cat treat and I don't?(*)" and "I want some fuss please". Even the electrickery-meter-reader once asked "Did he just say 'out'?"...

    (*) Rocket gets the treats and you don't, you great lump, because he chews them and you do not. All you do is gulp them down and then leave them lying around the house in little piles for me to clean up later, 'Mr Pukey'.

    No extra-terrestrial explanation (despite the title), but I didn't think any of the other icons looked particularly cute... we need a cat icon!

  13. Joanne Connors

    They're taking over....

    Next project for the academics.. Are the cats are using the special purr to communicate with the brain parasite they've infected us with!

    I bow down to Tiddles McFluffmeister our new overlord

  14. lukewarmdog


    Filing this next to the research about how cornflakes and biscuits go soggy when dipped in liquid.

  15. richard 7
    Black Helicopters

    Someone once said...

    Cats are intellegent, in act as much so as us.


    Cats hve also worked out that if they let onto this fact it would go very badly for catkind and so they are content to manipulate all around them (dogs arent immune to feline manipulations either).

    In short, this just confirms what every cat owner knows, they are crafty manipulating little buggers with spikk corners.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    Pavlov had it right...

    “Pavlov’s Cat Results

    Day One – rang bell… cat ****ed off. Damn…

    Day Two – rang bell, cat went and answered door.

    Day Three – rang bell, cat said he’d eaten earlier.

    Day Four – went to ring bell on day four, but cat had stolen batteries.

    Final day – Day Five – went to ring bell with new batteries, but cat put his paw on bell, so it only made a ‘thunk!’ noise. Then cat rang his own bell! I ate food…”

    Thank you Eddie.

  17. David S

    Sounds familiar...

    ...and, in terms of what possible uses this might be put to, it IS interesting, and may be useful, to know what types of sound we are conditioned or have evolved to find comforting, or arousing, or whatever. The fact that this arose from someone's (probably idle) observation of the different noises made by a hungry vs a full cat is happenstance.

    Not that we're likely to have smoke alarms' shrill "Peep! Peep!" replaced by a hungry cat's purr any time soon, but there it is. I can sort of see the point.

    I hope this wasn't VERY well-funded research, though. I hope the budget stretched to decent cat food, but not very much further...

  18. Anonymous Coward

    RE: Meow

    Jake wrote "Most animals don't actually think the way you and I do ... rather they are genetically programmed to react to a given situation"

    I love the smell of bullshit in the morning. Animals work no more on instinct than you or I. Admittedly, some things like single-cell organisms may work mostly on instinct but cats and dogs? Gimmie a break. Even spiders have been seen to solve problems.

  19. Max Pritchard
    IT Angle

    Just noticed...

    There seems to be a lot in common between this kind of research and many observational stand-up comedy routines. It strikes a chord and is appealing because someone else has noticed these things too and we no longer feel alone. But I guess not everyone is laughing at the entry fee.

    Where's the "Science?" icon when you need it?

  20. TeeCee Gold badge

    Another one.

    Yet again, a PR from the Department of the Bleedin' Obvious.

    This one says that cats are devious little bastards. Who knew?

  21. SuperTim
    IT Angle


    Anyone with a cat could have told you that. Mine pretends to go all weak and staggers about until it gets fed, the fat get!

  22. mafro

    Damn The Scientists

    All us cat owners will know the truth of this. As it happens I concur with jake above..

    Our cat tends to take this idea to the extreme (and I have no idea where he learnt to do it.. Certainly not from a baby). His hungry meow is long (like 10-15 secs) and the most strangled un-cute cat-has-eaten-anthrax noise you've ever heard.

    It's hilarious. We starve him just so we can hear it more often.

  23. Psymon

    I'd be more interested in the nature vs nurture aspect different breeds of cats have different vocal habbits.

    It is well known, for example, that Siamese cats are naturally very talkative. This is why my little persian redpoint (we cross-breed the persians with the siamese to obtain the colouration) is also very chatty.

    She has a very unusual meow which consists almost entirely of chirruping and chirping combinations (the purr-meow mix) containing multi-syllable words.

    In response to Damians original post, I can assure you they do indeed have a language, though some cats have a far greater vocabulary than others - usualy developed when they are in large social groups.

    When we used to breed cats, it didn't take me long to notice the diversity in vocal patterns, and it was extremely easy to recognise each cat by their voice alone (even when we had as many as 40 adult cats in the house - the breeding cycle was not without accidents!)

    I was fascinated to see the differences and similarities in behaviour between the different breeds, and levels of nurture (we adopted several rescue cats in our time), but it was the diversity in vocal patterns that really was amazing.

    Pudsey would open his mouth with no sound, until a low creak would escape right at the very end.

    Honey would produce a continuous single pitch for such a duration that it made you wonder if she wasn't drawing more air in from the other end.

    Jakes pitch was so high it would have put a Castrato to shame.

    Willow used to swear like a navi with his balls caught under some 2x4.

  24. northern monkey

    I'm with everyone else..

    ...whose angry these people get funding. Anyone from the street could've told them that cats are manipulative little shits that should be drowned in bags with rocks in, and as someone else pointed out it was put in a study a while ago.

    So how *HOW* did they manage to get funding for this, when physicists are struggling to get the funding they need to actually find out something new!!

    Bloody ESRC I bet - they'll give money to anyone, most of it going on getting people drunk and buying computer games for them to play whilst intoxicated (all in the name of academic research, of course!)

  25. Andrew Moore


    For year's I've been misinterpreting that cry as meaning "arse-punt me over the back wall. Please.."

  26. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

    Re: Pussy want some fish? Nice piece of fish, pussy want some?

    Christ, cats really are psychotically rude, aren't they?

  27. Anonymous Coward

    This wouldn't be complete without...

    ... Simon's Cat

  28. Martin 49

    Cats do communicate.

    Having woken me up using one of the many tactics listed above our cat runs to the stairs

    looking back to get me to follow.

    As I stagger downstairs half asleep the cat runs to the back door, turns and looks up and

    practically dancing on it's front paws it "says" "lemme out, lemme out now, I'm busting! - c'mon

    lemme out, lemme out! if you don't let me this instant out I'll pee on the kitchen floor! "

    Then when the back door is opened to a blast of cold wet wintry weather the cat "says"

    "I ain't goin' out *there* - It's raining!" and saunters off for another sleep.

  29. Shady
    Dead Vulture

    Cats are Bastards

    Well, mine always have been.

    My 18 y/o moggy employs this trick. The other (recently deceased) bastard just drew blood until he got his way.

  30. northern monkey


    Whilst you should probably refrain from starving your cat on purpose (just 'forget' to tell the neighbours next time you go for a long weekend) I do know what you mean - about 8 years ago I heard the exact same noise from my parents' cat after I made the unilateral decision to get the house sprayed with flea-killing-stuff (it needed it!).

    Not long after - they were away, I was staying out of the house - I heard the most terrifying noise emitting from said cat (FYI it could've done with a bit of a diet anyway!) and I was convinced the cat had somehow ingested the flea stuff and was rapidly plummeting through its 9 lives. I eventually had to fess up and tell them what I'd done, only to be told that that was its hungry noise!! Any animal that makes that sort of noise when it's hungry should be wiped out!

  31. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

    Cats do communicate

    Well mine does

    Usually by standing on my chest at 7am and slapping me about the face as if to say

    "get up you lazy bastard, you no goto work, you no buy catfood and me go hungry"

    Alien... because Cats are

  32. Grahame 2


    "Cats exhibit this behavior in private with their owners,"

    Cats don't have owners, they have staff.

  33. not'known@this.address

    @Sarah Bee

    You don't have a cat, do you?

    It's not that they are rude (although I will agree with the 'psychotic' part!), more that they never got past the pre-Copernicus view of the universe...

  34. Dr. Mouse


    Wow, cats find a noise which makes ppl feed them... come on guys what is the point of this "research"?

    Incidentally, my rats take a different approach. They start by climbing to the top of the cage and staring at me. If that doesnt work they start pushing the food bowl around. If that doesnt work, they start making as much noise as possible, distracting me from watching TV untill I get so ****ed off I feed em.

    After which they hide all the food in their "house", then start the staring again, as if I dont realise where it's all gone. Well, at least they used to before I caught on.

    Animals simply learn the best way to get what they want. All animals are the same, it's simple, and this research doesnt merit a story.

  35. Michael C

    My own experience

    We have 3 cats. 1 basically only makes noise when you annoy her, get in her way, or when one of the other 2 cats get too close. She does purr when petted, and does enjoy petting, but only when it suits her. She does not beg, or try to get anything out of me and the wife, completely independent, though she does nuzzle and rub to show affection.

    Cat 2 makes the prescribed noise when she demands scratching or brushing, but that's about it. Usually right at bed time, and if you don't pet her viggorously for at least 10-20 minutes, she'll nip you while purring, and if you continue to fail to comply, the'll make that nip something more like a bite. She'll also manage to get her head under your hand, lift it up, and then shake as if to instruct you how to properly pet a cat...

    Cat 3 does exactly what the article sais. As soon as my feet hit the floor in the morning he purr/crys and attempts to lead me downstairs to the food bowl. He'll watch me the entire time, continually checking to ensure I'm following, and make little meow/cries. Typically, when i get to his bowl, there's actually still food in it from the previous feeding, but I add more as he will not stop the chorus until i do so (and there's usually little enough to get them thorugh the day if I don;t add some). What irks me is that even if the bowl is completely empty, and he persists until I present food, he'll eat for all of 10 seconds, then go lay on the couch...

  36. Anonymous Coward

    Ass Plug

    My cat keeps crapping just outside my back door. Do you think these 'scientists' can tell me how to warn her I'm going to sew her arse shut if she doesn't stop?

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Ass Plug

    Sprinkle some hot chilli powder around the area, worked for me to stop next doors cat from shitting on my lawn, that and repeated threats to wring its scrawny neck followed by moving said excrement back to the rightful garden with added velocity.

    Having said that, I do like cats, just not ones that excrete their toxin infested crap all over my 3yr old's main play area.

  38. anarchic-teapot

    Chili powder

    > Sprinkle some hot chilli powder around the area

    I gather you have yet to meet a cat that likes spicy food. I've had two. They'd just lick the stuff up and carry on regardless.

    Incidentally, for all the usual whiners about "trivial" academic projects, why cats purr is one of the great mysteries in animal psychology. And the more we know about animals, the better we also understand ourselves, though why mine occasionally tries to play on the computer (I am NOT making this up) will, I hope, forever remain an enigma.

  39. Tawakalna

    o hai ther

    wi iz tawz cats n we sez dis risirsh iz shayt wegets fud bai kilin mayses n if u umans beleef dis shayt den uz purrti shtoopid pplz!

    wi az is paswurd. n urs tu!

  40. Andrew Culpeck

    Quote from someone I have forgoten

    Cats used to be worshiped be us thousands of years ago. They have not forgotten.

    Cats can be eval but fotunatly for them all we can see is their fur.

  41. Anonymous Coward

    Not wanting to play the me too game...

    ... but my goldfish (for crying out loud) do beg me to give them food by coming next to the glass, frantically waving their tails. Same thing when they want me to change the water, etc..

    They also are totally addicted to spinach..

    If I don't obey fast enough, they start splashing water out of the aquarium. So well, cats, you'd expect that from them but bloody goldfish!

  42. fishman

    100 uses for a dead cat

    I spent the weekend cleaning up my in laws house where they let their cat run wild. I realize that it is their (and my SIL who lives there) fault that they let the cat spray all around the house for years. They wouldn't get the cat fixed (which would have reduced the problem) because they were waiting for one of those free spay/neuter offers. Which never happened. Luckly, the cat died recently. But in trying to save $100 or so they let that cat do $40,000. worth of damage. The carpets throughout the house are ruined. He sprayed all of the furniture, drapes, walls, and wood flooring. We had no idea what was going on because they had been coming to our house for the last few years so we hadn't been to their house since before then.

  43. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Didn't you wonder why they always smelled of cat piss?

  44. Burch

    A trick?

    So, you want food/attention so you ask for it. Shock horror! Who'd have thought it?

  45. Alistair Wall

    @Andrew Culpeck

    PG Wodehouse: Cats as a class, have never completely got over the snootiness caused by that fact that in Ancient Egypt they were worshipped as gods.

    It's from one of the Mulliner stories.

  46. Chief sub

    Excellent use of a research grant

    Who says the UK isn't at the bleeding edge of world-changing scientific frontier-busting-type-thingy! Stick that in your Brebbia, Il Giornale!

  47. jake Silver badge

    @AC 08:32; @fishman; @Sarah

    AC: You are not an animal trainer, are you?

    fishman: Getting cats fixed after they learn to mark usually doesn't help. That said, it sounds like either they didn't keep its litter tray clean, or possibly the critter had a urinary tract infection.

    Sarah: No, not rude. Carnivores working within a human household.

  48. Anonymous Coward

    It's called "WHINING"

    1. To utter a plaintive, high-pitched, protracted sound, as in pain, fear, supplication, or complaint.

    2. To complain or protest in a childish fashion.

    Having a Ph.D. in non-human animal trickery, I'd suggest the authors examine the obvious, to wit: rewarding such behavior in cats, as in children, increases the probability of its repetition while ignoring it decreases same.

    Also, switching between the two strategies, according to one's temper of the moment - the typical human response, leads to the well documented "partial reinforcement effect" in which the critter's persistence goes through the roof along with the owners frustration and proclivity to invent bogus explanations for their inability to control cat behavior - usually involving instinct, feline spirits, inherited Jungian achetypes from their Egyptian days of glory etc. The latter behavior deserves more study than cat behavior, but that's another rant.

    Cat brains are different, alright - not typical of mammals at all, as their neuro-behavior regarding sleep-wake states with attention (or apparent inattention), and their exceptional susceptibility to one-trial learning about aversive events attest. However, that aside, they do, for most part, follow the near-universal rule of repeating what works and abandoning what doesn't. How could they not, and survive?

  49. Nebulo

    Not bad, but ...

    ... not as good as Fat Freddy's Cat:

    "Me out! Prowl now! Wow! Me out? Me out?"

    (then when he gets out ... "I swear, they're so stupid they don't even seem to understand when you speak to them in their own language!")

  50. Chief sub

    @ Alistair Wall

    To go with the Wodehouse quote:

    "I meant," said Ipslore bitterly, "what is there in this world that truly makes living worth while?" Death thought about it "Cats," he said eventually, "Cats are Nice”.

    Pratchett, natch.

  51. Alistair Wall

    Call youself a sub?

    Didn't Death say "CATS. CATS ARE NICE".

  52. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Slow news day eh?

    A comment is required, in addition to a title.

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