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Special Purr Allows Cats to Manipulate Humans

By Jennifer Viegas

Special Purr Allows Cats to Manipulate Humans

At 5 a.m., my cats want two things: breakfast and attention. Their Plan A is to meow louder than an alarm clock, which usually works. If I take longer than usual to respond, they resort to their no-fail Plan B: climbing on top of my head, butting my chin and purring with hypnotic desperation directly into my ear.

Perhaps you’ve also heard this special purr? Scientists have just named it “solicitation purring,” otherwise known as the purr we humans cannot ignore.

What Is Solicitation Purring?
Karen McComb, a cat owner herself, led the recent study on purring, published in the journal Current Biology. After she and her colleagues analyzed the acoustic structure of recorded cat purrs, they determined one particular type contains an embedded, high-pitched cry. “The high-frequency voiced cry occurs at a low level in cats’ normal purring, but we think that cats dramatically exaggerate it when it proves effective in generating a response from humans,” explains the University of Sussex behavioral ecologist.

The cry, much to a cat’s benefit, is very similar to that of a wailing human infant. “Cats have about the right size of vocal folds to produce a cry that is similar to a baby’s, so there is a coincidental element,” says Dr. McComb. In fact, she believes this cry component of a solicitation purr can sound remarkably like a crying child, and that is particularly effective with humans.

How It Works
If your cat sees you stirring from sleep at all in the early morning, it will immediately switch into giving this solicitation purring and position itself next to your head so you get the full impact. Sound familiar? Here’s what’s really taking place:

First Your cat gets a craving for food, water, attention, playtime or something else. Being relatively small, furry and unable to get to such things alone in your home, your pet sets a strategy in motion.

Second Your cat approaches you while vibrating its vocal folds, or cords, in its larynx. “This is not a normal vocal production mechanism [in the animal kingdom],” says Dr. McComb. “Usually in mammals, the vocal folds are just moved into the airstream and then are blown open and snap shut at their own natural frequency of vibration.” The resulting vibrating low fundamental frequency results in a purr.

Third Your cat doesn’t just continue to purr as usual. It voices a cry, “probably with the inner edges of the vocal folds,” believes Dr. McComb. The cry is superimposed on the regular purr.

Fourth You hear the solicitation purr and instinct kicks in. Studies show that most primates are driven to respond to the sound of an infant in distress, so your brain on some level perceives your cat as though it were an actual human baby, even though you consciously know it’s your needy feline.

Last If you are like most owners, you give in to what your cat desires. Considering cats cannot use actual words, the system is surprisingly effective. Nicolas Nicastro, who studied cat vocalizations at Cornell University, says that although they lack language, cats have become very skilled at managing humans to get what they want -- food, shelter and a little human affection.

Have Cats Domesticated Humans?
Cats are domesticated animals that have learned to pull the right levers and make the right sounds to manage our emotions. And when we respond, we too are domesticated animals.

However, don’t confuse cats for little people. “Felines cannot say, ‘Take a can of food out of the cupboard, run the can opener and fill my bowl immediately,’” says Nicastro. They’ve evolved a different, yet no less effective, method of communicating with us.

Four Types of Purrs
Dr. McComb and Georgia Mason, a professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, suggest cats might purr in at least four ways:

  • Contentment purr This is “the relaxing one,” says Dr. Mason. It’s the common low frequency rumbling we both hear and feel.
  • Silent purr Purrs can occur as silent forms that we humans feel but not hear. Kitten purrs are particularly easy to feel, probably because of a kitten’s ability to communicate “all is well” to its natural mother.
  • Solicitation purr This is the newly identified purr with the embedded baby-like cry. “It’s amazing the way certain cries are recognized by humans as needy, even by non-cat owners,” says Dr. Mason.
  • Pain purr Cats also sometimes purr when they’re extremely ill. No one is certain why, but some experts have speculated the felines are attempting to comfort themselves.

If you have heard the solicitation purr, consider yourself lucky. “Not all cats use this solicitation purring,” explains Dr. McComb. “It seems to most often develop in cats that have a one-on-one with their owners.”

Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.

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Posted on December 10, 2011

Rod C. Venger says: Ginger, one of my 11 year-old Siamese, seems to have a 5th type of purr. She'll walk up to me, look up, and do a combination huff and purr at me. Her chest heaves with each huff. It seems to be an invitation for me to bend down and put my face close to hers, possibly so she can smell what I've been eating or maybe just to smell me to check on my general welfare. Once I lean over to within a few inches of her face, she huff-purrs two or three more times and then stops, her curiosity presumably satisfied. Ginger is also a fetcher and master manipulator. She likes to carry around socks that are balled up, yowling all the way. I believe she thinks they are her babies, though she's never had a litter.

Posted on September 25, 2011

Sandy Anderson says: When my cat, Grace, wants me to get up and feed her in the morning, she just sits nearby and stares at me.  I wake up every time without her even making a sound.  Wouldn't trade that girl for anything in the world.  

Posted on October 4, 2011

coolvan says: I know my babies manipulate me every day!! They have me trained well lol

Posted on August 8, 2011

Lexi says: My cat Smudge has this "special purr" she purrs so loud the when we get up she wants: A.outside OR

Posted on August 4, 2011

Cherri says: I have American Bobtails that don't meow unless something is wrong, they put their paws on my arm to get my attention so they can go out to use their private toilet area.

Posted on July 12, 2011

Sheila W says: I'm happy to hear that I'm one of the lucky ones to hear the solicitation purr, lol! Vladimir uses it alot, especially when he's ready to go out for our walks.

Posted on July 15, 2011

brian says: When my cat wants to be fed in the morning, she will jump on the bed, meow, and tap me with her paw unitl I wake up. Also, my wife is amazed that I can have a meow conversation with the cat too. I will meow and the cat will meow back to me. I also will respond with a different meow tone and sometimes she will closely mimic my meow. It is pretty awesome.

Posted on February 13, 2011

Lola says: Of course I respond to my cats.  I am their caretaker.  They rely on me to feed them and take care of them and I love them. 

Posted on December 9, 2010

Lori says: This is what we call the "squeaky" purr in my house! Only 2 of the 14 do this sound, but boy do they do it well!

Posted on November 6, 2010

Paula says: Young cat is urinating on all 3 beds. Vet says he has an urinary infection, but he doesn't get along with older 6 year old female cat. Could this be a behaviour problem, too?

Posted on October 28, 2010

diana says: my cat , india, has bald spots all over her head and neck and shoulders but she is acting normally and it cant be a ringwork because her skin is not red and crusty

Posted on October 20, 2010

D says: I have a ragdoll also but he doesnt suck on a blanket, he sucks on his own nipple and the fur around his nipple. he's been doing it since I brought him home. he's 1 1/2 years old now and he's still doing it.

Posted on January 14, 2010

Jaclyn says: My problem....I also have or had a very lovable 5yr old cat. She adopted me when she was about 4 months old. She was very active and loved to play until Tiger joined our family. I love cats and decided to get her a playmate. She got along well with my daughter's lg. dog. Anyway, new kitty came home (kept them apart so they could get their take and smells on each other). Spooky (older one) didn't like little Tiger from the start. Tiger, being a kitten runs after Spooky to play all the time. Spooky goes WILD and CRAZY, even growls and gets nasty with me. Never seen anything like it. It's been almost 2 months now and Spooky is no better. I'm afraid as Tiger gets bigger, Spooky will attack Tiger. It's like she's turned totally wild. I try to spend as much time with Spooky when I'm allowed. I feel like I'm living in a zoo! I need serious help. Do you know if they have cat trainers? Had cats my whole life and never had this problem. The other nite they both were in my bedroom and Spooky took it out on me and scratched me pretty good when I got close to her trying to get Tiger out of the way. Tiger bit me trying to get him out of the room! HELP, HELP, HELP! I really don't want to find a new home for Tiger but I'm feeling I may not have a choice. Tiger is now at the age to get him neutered (next wk), think this will help? He is not spraying yet, but will be soon.

Posted on January 28, 2010

Ash says: Cats should not be eating table scraps. Do not believe the stupid things read or seen on TV, especially cats drinking milk. Even if they 'like' it , they don't need it and are lactose intolerant. They are obligate carnivores, meat eaters. Feed a high quality food, and feed some if not most, canned, especially if they don't drink water. First ingredient in food should be meat. Unless you want more vet bills and have the poor cat suffer, you won't feed the cheaper food and table crap. Cats are especially sensitive and need to eat properly.

Posted on January 28, 2010

Jan says:

Posted on February 7, 2010

robin says: I am so glad I fond her.

Posted on June 9, 2010

dental hygienist says:

Posted on September 3, 2010

H. Dombrowski says: This is a very interesting site and I would like to stay with it.

Posted on September 11, 2010

zette says: I have a cat that I have been feeding since June. He/She is pretty skidish. Will not let me touch or reach for Him/Her without backing off. Not sure of sex as you can tell so It meows and sits outside and waits for me to come feed each morning and evening. My husband said it lived in his work shop all winter of '09 but he never told me so it was June before I started feeding it. I have a dog (schnauzer) that the cat is friendly with. The actually touched noses and sniffed each other last weekend but the cat will not let me touch it. I would like to be able to domesticate it and take it to the vet for shots and to be spayed. I would estimate that the cat is about a year old. Strange thing is last Aug. I saw another cat with same coloring in the same area of my yard around pool and work shop but died. This cat sleep in the same spot that that I found the other cat dead. Can you please tell me how I can gain the cats confidence so I can get it to the vet?

Posted on September 19, 2010

Sarah says: Dinky is the best little kitten ever.

Posted on September 30, 2010

Kim says:

Posted on September 30, 2010

montecia davis says: my cat jasmine is a siamese cat.Boy can she holler .she is a very sweet baby.she is particular about who she likes .She dnt like everybody .But i love her so much.

Posted on September 30, 2010

Joan says: Cats fighting--put each in a cage, take turns letting them out to eat etc. After a while they will calm down. Cats love you if you give them snacks, like bits of chicken. I lost 2 cats that were bullied & left home. Just put one down for biting me on purpose, a beautiful cat. broke my heart. My cat boy sleeps on my chest, another sleeps on my arm, the rest sleep on my feet. Only 1 uses that solicitation cry--she was peeved with me & would not sit on my lap or purr till I made her do it, now she will sit on my lap. They do get bees in their bonnet sometimes. Separation for fighting is best way to stop it. This shows them YOU are in charge and you want their behavior to change. They still will not like each other, but they will act better. I got my first cat when I was 5, a bribe to go to Sunday School! and I have 5 cats and 4 kittens right now. What is high quality food? We had melamine-poisoned high quality food courtesy of China only a few years ago, so just be sure what you feed makes a balanced diet. Give them canned food only if you are determined to spoil them, lol. I do.

Posted on January 13, 2010

Trina Bertoldi says: I found a cat that was left at Wal-Mart in the hot 98 degree summer.She was left in the hot sun and the garden dept. people broght her into the garden area. She did have a note on her cage that said please take me home, my name is Cali and I have had all my shots, spayed and declawed. Shhe was so stressed and hot, she was panting! I could not leave her there to die! I brought her home and she is the best, most loving cat I have ever had!! She is on my lap as I am typing this! We have a bond and love for each other that is awesome!! It was meant to be that we found each other and I feel sorry for the people who left her! They are missing out on the most awesome cat ever!!

Posted on January 11, 2010

Carol says: My 26-month-old Ragdoll only purrs just before bedtime: as soon as I'm "tucked in", she makes a very soft "erp" sound (sort of like she's asking permission to come to bed) then she jumps on top of my chest, starts purring and licks the blanket.......just like she's nursing at her cat mommy's nipple. She will only use one special blanket, which we've called the "sucky" blanket. She will not go to sleep at night unless she has this special blanket. She will purr away and suck contentedly until she falls asleep. She's been doing this since we took her home, when she was just 6 weeks old. When she stops sucking momentarily, she'll look into my eyes --- her face is pressed right up next to mine --- and when I say "sucky - suck, Coco Chanel" she starts sucking away again with renewed enthusiasm! How cute! However, I've yet to fall asleep with a dry blanket in the past 2 years.......................

Posted on November 19, 2009

joanna says: a stray pregnant female adopted us and gave us 7 kittens. we kept two and male' and female. right after they were weaned mother was spayed, and soon after brother and sister were fixed as well, because he was showing signs of sexual awakening. it hasbeen two years and he stills tracks her constanty. we have had both checks by our vet, but it is like a dominant thing. he even tries t he same with his mother, but mom puts him in his place. He is so much taller and larger than the two female. help what do I do?

Posted on November 19, 2009

forex robot says: great post as usual .. thanks .. you just gave me a few more ideas to play with

Posted on November 21, 2009

Ruth Ann says: I'm delighted to have come across this site! My kitties have distinctive purrs and sweet meows for specific messages and will "talk" to me and answer my questions, too! Also, your readers shed some welcome light on the fleecy behavior of my more butterscotch-colored cat, the smaller male. I thought he was weird because he routinely hops up for some lovin' when I go to bed -- he purrs like crazy, is choosey in picking his spot, then drools on the fleece blanket while I rub his tummy. When he's had enough he gently kicks my hand away and leaves. What's with this fleece obsession? Why aren't my other two year-old red tabbies attracted to fleece? These three cats are far and away the most affectionate, communicative, and intelligent cats I've ever known (and I've owned many cats in my lifetime (nearly all were orange and white, which heretofore I believed were the most intelligent of all cats). These two males and the sister of one of them have amazing, loving personalities -- my vet says it comes with the red tabby color. I wish the "Cats 101" series on the Animal Planet channel would do a show about red tabbies. Are they just a color-cum-affectionate intelligence or are they a breed?

Posted on November 23, 2009

da says: All of this is amazing! I now have more to think about.

Posted on November 24, 2009

Pami says: About 13 yrs.ago, i was walking along the beach. I saw a gunny sack at the waters edge. I walked closer to it , and it was moving. It was a tiny baby kitten.And one of her back legs was crushed. I took her to vet, He said there was nothing he could do about her leg, she was to small to operate on .And she probly wont survive anyway because she was only a couple days old. I took her home, i wanted to keep her. I named her Pod. As she grew, we were like mother and daughter. my friends were amazed of our relationship. We yell at each other, she sasses me, i tell her to go to her room and she flicks her tail at me and stomps off to her room. She loves her cat nip, she taps me twice on the arm and looks at the can on the table. If i dont get it she taps me harder and meows. If that dont work she sets on my lap and taps on my cheek and meows loud while looking at the can. If i still dont respond, she gets on the table and knocks the can to the floor and rolls it to my feet, stares at me and makes that solicitation purr along with the loud obnocious meow crys. She is quite the cat. Everyone that knows her says she thinks shes a human. And i say : She is my little fur person. Im glad i came across this site. Its good reading. and the comments are great... By the way.. I did get her leg amputated when she was a little over 6 months old. She did miss draging the dead leg around. But it didnt take her long to realize she could run { even though its kinda sideways like a crab} she can run..... thanks for this site. I learn stuff about Pod, like why she does some of the things she does........

Posted on December 1, 2009

Patty says: My vet said meowing at the litter box indicates pain in urination. Also urinating outside the box indicates something is medically wrong. Get kitty to the vet right away.

Posted on December 3, 2009

Mark says: God bless you for saving that little kitten Pami. In return you gained a special friend. I have two adult female cats and recently I brought home a male tabby kitten that I found outside work. I named him Mr. Peepers. He was obviously an orphan. I estimate he was four weks old when I found him. Now he's a happy part of the family.

Posted on December 6, 2009

cat says: I have an orange tiger cat that is extremely verbal. She is the first to respond when I wake in the morning, by crying out with a voice that sounds just like mom, not meow. She has a different cry for each need. litter box needs changing, food dish needs filled, water refilled, etc. My siamese who is supposed to be talkative, never vocalizes. My Manx only cries when he wants to go outside or come back in.

Posted on December 12, 2009

Kourtney says: I recently gave a home to a female cat that was put outside of my job its a calico and she is female and she is pregnant, and I don't know what to do or the process of her having these babies I want to provide her with a safe environment but I also want to know how to care for her in her time of need

Posted on December 21, 2009

linda says: shebitesmehardbleed i amafraid of her at times she hissing, like she is going to attack, i love her she is spoil please help

Posted on January 5, 2010

Samantha says: My female TC had a litter of 6 kittens with our long hair male. We then got both fixed and gave away the kittens. after a couple of months now the female and male are both fighting. the female swats him and dominates the inside wen he comes in. the male chases her and dominates the outside. Some1 plz help!! y is this behavior happening when they had kittens 2gether???

Posted on January 7, 2010

sierra says: everytime i pick up my cat he claws me in the breasts and jumps down after purring then meows loudly

Posted on January 7, 2010

jasmin says: every night he jumps on the window then moews all night ps hes a house cat

Posted on January 8, 2010

sue says: do all cats have black gums at the bottom?

Posted on January 9, 2010

carol says: why does my kitty sunny start kneading on me before he lays on my lap?

Posted on January 9, 2010

Noelmarie Rossi says: My 2 year old male cat scratches at the bedroom door every morning between 4 and 6 until one of us gets up!

Posted on January 10, 2010

debbielamb says: why when i put food inmy cats bowl he knows its there he knows its there but will meow until i follow him back in there then he will eat

Posted on January 10, 2010

Deborah says: I have gotten a Kitten of 6 months of age today she was clingy towards me cause she is at the Animal Center she will be fixed tomorrow and I will be bring her home tomorrow afternoon My Question is was this just a one time thing and when I get her home she will not want to be held she would not go to the works when I gave her to them she came right back to me so I stayed there alittle longer with her

Posted on October 21, 2009

Marji says: Well, science is finally confirming what we cat owners knew all along, our little fur-faces know how to get what they want, LOL. Very interesting article!

Posted on October 21, 2009

Stephanie says: My cats definitely use this purr. My 5yr female, Bonnie, is notorious for using this purr early in the morning to get affection while the other cats are asleep. She kneads my shoulder and purrs in my ear so I'll pet her. My 1yr female, Moe, purrs like this when I go to pick up her food bowl. Mostly, my cats are very vocal. They like to sing the "dinner song" as I call it, when it's time to eat. All in harmony. :)

Posted on October 28, 2009

mindy says: i have a question when my female cat is in heat and meows is she in pain or horney

Posted on November 3, 2009

Muriel says: We have a female cat that is used to sleeping on a fleece "blankie" at the bottom of our bed. Last year we adopted a large male cat. Lately he insists on sleeping on her fleece. He is so long that unless she snuggles right next to him (which she refuses to do) there is no room for her as my husband's long legs kick. The female is really upset and he won't budge. He makes some sort of noise and she immediately jumps off the bed. Should I just allow them to work it out or should I remove him from the bed?

Posted on November 5, 2009

Daniel Vezelich says: MY Cat "INKY" is a D.S.H. black Tuxedo.He will be 3 in Feb. of 2010.I adopted him at 10 months from a local Animal Shelter. They fed him only dry Iams Cat food. I do also.Question is he doesn't like meat in any shape or form,won't eat chicken scraps,nor fish or shrimp. one exception is to add some Tuna from a can to his Iams dry food. What's with my little black Meower????

Posted on November 6, 2009

Donna says: For the person with the new male cat which is dominating the "Blankie" at the end of the bed... I would suggest you let them work it out unless the start to fight over it, then I would take the blanket off the bed and put it elsewhere. I have two female cats whom were fighting over the bed and I made them get off the bed when it got too aggressive and was keeping me up. Since then they seem to have settled their differences. Maybe that will work for you, it did for us.

Posted on November 6, 2009

Stephanie says: Daniel - all cats have foods they won't eat. I too have a female who does not like table scraps. I recently changed my cats' diets so they get wet food at dinner time. At first she wasn't too thrilled, but once I found the flavors and textures she liked - it was no big deal. If your cat doesn't like table scraps - then don't force them on him.

Posted on November 6, 2009

Stephanie says: Mindy, your cat is horny...have you thought of gettin her spayed?

Posted on November 6, 2009

Stephanie says: Muriel - I have 4 cats that like to claim the fleece on the end of our bed as well. What we did is, we made several beds around our room for them to choose from. This way, they can rotate and all have a place ot sleep. We have a pillow on the floor, a cat bed on the night stand, a fleece blanket on a storage container inour closet, and another cat bed on the end of the hope chest. Of course, they usually all end up sleeping on me in the end.

Posted on November 12, 2009

virginia says: I have changed litter brands again because both my persian and my angora cat, especially the persian cry befor using the box., the female angora has been lpeeing on my bed so I cover it with a huge plastic sheet.This is new befaviour for ten year old cats and I wonder if it is age or illness related and what to do about it. they are both neutered and spayed when young. The female also wants to rlun across the street at night to the park, but she knows there are large geese over there that will peck her if they are disturbed. We moved two years ago and they seemed to adjust well. I used to go for a short walk with them at night, but since then I had to stop due to her running across the street. Now they stay in and it seems especally the male persian is angry about it and likes to swat her once in a while.. It is new behaviour on both accounts and when scolding didn't work I try reassuring them that I love them both, which has had better results. Any Ideas for any problems mentioned?

Posted on November 12, 2009

sue says: summer of 2008 a fluffy cat adopted my family & I. she had a litter of 4. we kept one of them as well.(Both are fixed). My husband says she will always be a wild cat but, I don't think that's true. She and I have great conversations and alot of love for each other. I know she understands what I say to her. I know she loves me as much as I love her. But, is John right? Could she just one day leave us because she's wild? (or used to be).

Posted on November 13, 2009

staci says: I have 3 cats, 1 female 10yrs, and 2 males 3 and 1yrs; all fixed. intermittently the 3 year old likes to bully the female and chase her under the bed. How can i deter this behaviour? she seems to find it very upsetting and hisses alot when it occurs.

Posted on November 15, 2009

kier says: My cat,no1 believes me actuaully makes his meows sound like human words! Like "let me out" he answers "talks" 2 me when i ask if he wants his food. oh yes they are a number of them of which no1 believes until they hear him do it and needless to say and kinda sad is that he has me wrapped around his little paw! a different and understandable cry/meow 4 everything from my bowl is almost empty,to i want the tiolet flushed,let me out,yes i am a good boy,yes i want food,let me out and the list goes on. I am now wondering in a human years what level of human mental capacity do they have.Some1 told me around a 3rd grader & i would really like 2 know. but vocal isn't the word,oh even tells me when he wants litter box cleaned. It's unneleiveable! but he is my baby always! his name is angel!

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