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The Power of a Cat’s Purr

on July 24, 2009
Posted in News

Everyone who owns a cat, or who has ever been owned by a cat, knows how calming their purrs can be or how demanding their meowing can be, for that matter.

However, scientists have recently taken this one step further and have come to the conclusion that cats have the uncanny ability to mix a very relaxed purr with a somewhat annoying whine, in order to get exactly what they want from their human caretakers.

The reason, it seems, is that nearly every domesticated cat is physically able to emit two very distinctive sounds: a calm, content purr, and a very urgent, demanding purr. The focus of this study was on the urgent purr, simply because it is a cat’s surefire way to get the attention of its owners and caretakers quickly and effectively. Reason being is that the frequency range of this urgent purr is quite similar to that of a crying human baby, and that is a sound that every human can hear and will definitely respond to.

Talk about being wrapped around your kitty’s little paw!

The study was conducted by the Centre for Mammal Vocal Communication Research at England’s University of Sussex. Scientists at the Centre research different types and aspects of vocalization in animals, including the different types of dog growls and the roars of red deer.

However, the most recent study investigated exactly how it was that domestic cats were cleverly able to use a simple purr in order to retrieve food and treats from their caretakers.

British Scientist, and head of the study at the University of Sussex in England, Karen McComb, was inspired to conduct the study because of her own cat’s persistent early morning purring.

“I wondered why this purring sounded so annoying and was so difficult to ignore. Talking with other cat owners, I found that some of them also had cats who showed similar behavior”.

Each human was subjected to an audio comparison of a purr that was recorded whilst a cat was actually searching and requesting food and of a purr that was recorded when a cat was quite happy and relaxed.

The result was that the humans were able to easily distinguish the ‘needy’ purr as being far more urgent and less happy than the second record purr, even for those humans who have never owned a cat.

Once the scientists had analyzed the acoustics of the ‘needy purr’, they discovered a rather high frequency module that was quite similar to a cat’s meow or cry. The scientists then quickly re-mastered the purr digitally to remove the high frequency piece and were able to conclude that that humans who were listening to the recorded sound, did not feel that there was any sense of dire urgency in the tone of the purr. The high pitched cry that was embedded in the cats’ happy purr, was thought to actually trigger a sense of urgency in the cats owners and caretakers, thereby potentially exploiting a human’s natural instinct to nurture the young.

Their investigation revealed that the cats’ mix of this special purr and meow combo, actually “exploits an inherent mammalian sensitivity to acoustic cues relevant in the context of nurturing offspring.”

This study went on to be published in the journal, Current Biology, and claimed that most humans find such a purr to be extremely annoying and quite difficult to ignore.

McComb, suggests that by making such soliciting purring sounds, cats are proving that they have an understanding of how human sensitivity to sounds work and that it is related to nurturing instincts in humans.

“The embedding of a cry within a call that we normally associate with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response,” explained McComb.

According to McComb, this type of ‘solicitation purring’ is most likely more tolerable to a cat’s owner or caretaker, than blatant meowing.

However, ‘solicitation purring’ is not a distinguishing factor in every cat or kitten.

Those cats or kittens who exhibit such subtly demanding purrs usually have a very strong bond with their owners and, more often than not, have a one on one relationship with their owner or caretaker. This is evident in the fact that these cats that were being studied, refused to commence any type of purring, never mind ‘solicitation purring’. In order to combat this set back, scientists had to teach the cat owners exactly how to record their cats’ cries at home.

It is interesting to note that even humans who do not own a cat, were also able to perceive a sense of urgency in the tone of the cats’ purr on the recordings that were played back to them. This undoubtedly proves that the cats’ crying purr does cause a human’s sensitivity level to rise.

Photo Credit: ToNG!?

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Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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