Tune in to your cat

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14 October 2014
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Ever wondered what your cat is saying? Jon Bowen has had us listening to a variety of miaow sounds and here he explains how they can be interpreted.How cats communicateOn average, cats vocalized at their owners about six times per day, with one percent of cats never vocalizing at their owners. There was no difference?between male and female cats. There was also a 'super-talkative' group of about ten per cent of cats who vocalized at their owners 25 or more times each day. In terms of sex and age, these cats were no different from the others, but when asked about the personality of these cats, their owners?described them as significantly more playful, demanding, outgoing, cuddly,?frie

When I started looking at the results, I expected that these super-talkers would also turn out to be the ones that demanded food more often and, as a?result, would tend to be overweight. In fact, this was not the case. The?super-talkative cats were not the heavyweights, and their owners did not interpret their cat's vocalizations as particularly related to food.

Deciphering cat speak

In the second part of the survey we asked participants to listen to a series?of five recordings of individual cat vocalizations, and then rate whether each cat was asking for food, attention or play, and then how hungry the cat?sounded, how distressed it sounded and, finally, how concerned they would be if their own cat made the same kind of vocalization.

The results were very interesting, because people did agree on the interpretation of what they heard. Cats one, three and five were all consistently rated as hungry and asking for food, with cat two being rated as asking for play. Cat four was purring, and most people did not rate it as asking for anything. They also felt that this cat was neither distressed nor making the kind of noise that would cause them concern if it was their own cat. That makes sense because purring is a sound that even non-cat owners are familiar with and we generally interpret to be a self-expression of contentment rather than a direct communication.?

Cat number five was the special one in this study, because he was making the 'solicitous purr' that the research team at the University of Sussex?identified as uniquely worrying and hard to ignore for cat owners.?

People consistently rated this cat as not only hungry and asking for food,?but also the most distressed sounding. They indicated that they would be most?concerned if they heard their cat making this sound. It seems that even in our simple experiment we found the same kind of results as the Sussex group.

We can also go a step further and say that male and female cat owners?interpret the sounds of cat five quite differently. Women consistently rated?that cat as more distressed and less playful then men did, and women?were significantly more concerned by this sound. Given that the solicitous?purr contains a cry that is of the same frequency as a human baby, this fits?with research that shows the brains of women respond more strongly and emotionally to baby cries than those of men.

Working out the meaning

Past research has tended to dispute the ability of owners to identify the?specific meaning of cats' vocalizations. The results of our study seem to show that people do agree on the interpretation of cat vocalizations, which suggests that more research is needed. We know that none of the cats in the?study were distressed, but we don't really know exactly what any of them?wanted when they made the noises in the recordings.

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However, it does seem that a cat owner's evaluation of the recordings relates very strongly to their experience with their own cats. For example, owners whose cats vocalized at them a lot rated the recorded cats as significantly less distressed and concerning than those whose cats vocalized less. This is the 'boy who cried wolf' effect; if your cat talks to you all the time you learn to 'tune out' a bit.

The precise interpretation was also influenced by experience. Owners who?said their cats often asked them for play were more likely to rate the recorded vocalizations as asking for play, and those who said their cats often asked them for food were more likely to rate the recorded vocalizations as hungry or asking for food.

What we did not find was a connection between interpretation of vocalization and obesity. The reason is a simple one; hardly any of the cats could be classed as obese!

The Clever Purr?

Crafty cats coax their owners into giving them what they want by using a special purr that humans just can't ignore. A team of psychologists at the?University of Sussex discovered that some cats use a special purr (the so-called 'solicitation' purr) to coax their owners into giving them what they want. It's said to be irresistible because of a high-frequency element?embedded within it, similar to a cry or miaow, which subtly triggers a sense of urgency. By employing such an embedded 'cry', cats appear to be exploiting?the innate human tendency to nurture offspring. However, in this case the felines subtly bury their 'feed me' messages in an otherwise pleasant purr.

Dr Karen McComb was inspired to initiate the study because her own cat, Pepo, had the knack of waking her up in the mornings with insistent purring.

She says: "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 behaviour."

Karen and her team set up an experiment which tested human responses to the different purring types. She says: "When humans were played purrs recorded while cats were actively seeking food at equal volume to purrs recorded in non-solicitation contexts, even those with no experience of cats judged the 'solicitation' purrs to be more urgent and less pleasant."

Not all cats, however, use this solicitation purring: "It seems to most?often develop in cats that have a one-on-one relationship with their owners rather than in large households where there is a lot going on and such purring might get overlooked. Miaowing seems to be more common in these situations."

Meanwhile, cats who did use solicitation purring and were recruited to help with the research were not always cooperative. Karen says: "Cats exhibit this behaviour in private with their owners, typically at anti-social times, such as first thing in the morning. They also tend to clam up or leave when strangers turn up. We had to train owners to use the equipment to record both the solicitation and non-solicitation purrs in their own homes."