Cats have developed ways to 'exploit' humans

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Domestic cats have developed subtle ways of psyching out their owners to get what they want, a study has shown.

Pussy's favourite ploy when hungry is to throw an urgent meow-like call into a flurry of contented purrs.

The resulting mixed signal taps into a natural instinct for nurturing offspring and is difficult to ignore, according to psychologists.

"The embedding of a cry within a call that we normally associated with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response," said study leader Dr Karen McComb, from 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."

Dr McComb was inspired to carry out the research by her own cat, who consistently wakes her up in the morning with a very insistent purr.

She learned from talking to other cat owners that some of their pets had learned the same manipulative trick.

Owners were asked to record their cats' cries, which were used in a series of playback experiments.

Dr McComb's team found that humans judged purrs recorded when cats wanted food to be more urgent and less pleasant than in other situations. This was true even for people who had never owned a cat themselves.

"We found that the crucial factor determining the urgency and pleasantness ratings that purrs received was an unusual high-frequency element - reminiscent of a cry or meow - embedded within the naturally low-pitched purr," said Dr McComb whose research is published in the journal Current Biology.

"Human participants in our experiments judged purrs with high levels of this element to be particularly urgent and unpleasant."