2009-09-23 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

by Joanne Anderson

“Feed me!” It’s the “purrfect” ploy. Cats may not do what we want them to do, but they are vocally adept at manipulating us to do what they want, especially when it comes to providing room service. Now there is scientific proof that reveals the feline modus operandi. It seems conniving cats urge owners to fill their food bowls by sending a specific, mixed signal that people find hard to ignore.

According to the July 14th issue of Current Biology (Cell Press) a

team of University of Sussex psychologists discovered that many cats hide a high pitched cry within a purr when soliciting food from their hosts. The urgent pleading, reminiscent of a human baby’s cry, is combined with a pleasant purr- a subliminal trick that preys upon our parental instincts. The scientists say that these cats appear to be exploiting humans’ innate tendencies to nurture our own offspring.

Dr. Karen McComb got the idea for this study because her pet cat Pepo had the habit of waking her up each morning with his persistent purring. Talking with other cat guardians, she found that she was not alone. Many others had cats like Pepo that exhibited similar annoying behavior. What feline force drove the sleepy masses to spring from bed to serve their demanding cats breakfast even before they got themselves a cup of coffee?

McComb set up an experiment that tested human response to different purring types. When people listened to recordings of purrs of cats actively seeking food at the same volume as purrs from cats in the “non-solicitation” mode, even those with the no cat experience rated the “solicitation” purrs as more urgent and less pleasant.

The common factor in determining whether the sound was judged as more urgent and less pleasant was the high frequency cry embedded within the natural low pitch purr. When that cry was removed, the urgency rating decreased significantly.

Getting the recordings was quite a task because not all cats use this technique, nor were the real schemers cooperative. When actual cats were recruited for the tapes, researchers found that cats that had one to one bonds with their person were more apt to try this tactic. A cat that came from a busy household or multi-cat setting where there was so much activity that this plaintive purr might be overlooked was more likely to screech a regular meow.

In other words, the “spoiled brat cats” have “purrfected” this sneaky trick. These cats tend to use this behavior in private with their owners at anti-social times, like in the early morning, and also tend to stifle themselves or leave the room when strangers arrive. Mc- Comb’s team had to train the owners to use the equipment to record both kinds of purrs for the study.

“Feed me! Feed me now!” Just like the monster plant in the play Little Shop of Horrors, over the last 11 years my 3-legged brat cat Veto (who has never been to Sussex) has fine-tuned this soprano/basso cry. Beginning around 6 a.m. he emits the solicitation purr, and if I don’t act fast enough, he then starts noshing on houseplants so he’ll wretch, wakes up the dogs or, better yet, bites me. “Ouch, must be time for Fancy Feast!”

GOOD NEWS: Happy to report that both Alex, the black Pit Bull, who was discovered with his owner who had died (“Pets” Beacon 8/20 & 9/3/09) and Kember, the German Shepherd turned into the shelter to be put down because of hypothyroidism (Beacon 9/10/09 ) have found new homes. Actually Kember is living with the same lovely family who had adopted another Babylon Shelter miracle Shepherd. You may remember Lissy from 2004 - the amazing, bedraggled gal whose blurry tattoo traced to Germany and her many Schutzhund titles. Her tale was even included in a children’s book. Lissy passed away at the age of 12, several months ago. Kember has quite a void to fill.

Special Cat Plea: Similar to the Alex, black Pit Bull saga, my beautiful 30 year old cousin died unexpectedly on Sept. 3rd. When the police entered her Manhattan apartment, they also found her four cats. Throughout her short, life, my cousin treasured her cats. A policeman adopted one; a neighbor placed another; but the two young tuxedo brothers remain in the empty 5th floor walk-up for now, being cared for by family, the neighbor and the super. These friendly fellows are neutered and FeLV/FIV tested. We will separate them. We just want a loving home for each. Please call 631-661-6164 or contact me at the Post. Thank you.

Oyster Bay Shelter Dogs for Adoption (677-5784) Miller Pl. Syosset: Six year old Hound mix, Fidget” #538 was displaced when her family got a younger dog. “Gypsy” #367- the Cattle Dog mix has been waiting for months. “Beverly” #578 is a small Spitz/Shepherd, ideal for an older person.

Reminder: Come to the “Buddy Cares Pet Fair” this Sat. Sept. 26 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Tanner Park in Copiague. The festivities will showcase Babylon Shelter dogs and cats. Also low cost microchips and rabies shots available for the public’s pets. Call the shelter or 631-893-1053 for more info.

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