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Putty in their paws: Why we do what cats want

Cats are skimpy with affection, territorial and do a lot of taking and without much giving.  So why do we put up with them? A pair of studies says we may not have a choice.
Cats domesticated themselves ages ago so that people would take care of them and have honed the pitch of their meows to a point where people can't ignore them, say a pair of recent studies.
Cats domesticated themselves ages ago so that people would take care of them and have honed the pitch of their meows to a point where people can't ignore them, say a pair of recent studies.
/ Source: contributor

Tamara Fox goes to extremes for her cats that she wouldn't dream of for even her best friend.

“I clean their butts when necessary,” she says of 10-year-old Emma, a lilac-point Siamese mix, and 15-year-old Brianne, a chocolate seal-point Himalayan. “I wouldn’t do that for anyone else.”

Dena Harris of Madison, N.C., endures a daily slapping around by her 8-year-old cat, Olivia, who taps her on the shoulder early each morning until she gets up and feeds her.

And Cecile Moore put up with acts of extortion from her cat Henry who regularly sat on the top of the bureau of her Athens, Ga., home and scooted a bottle of perfume toward the edge until she got out of bed.

While we'd never tolerate that behavior from a house guest — or even our own kids — we take it from cats, along with their extreme independence and their refusal to show affection except on their own terms and frequent shedding. Our relationship is based on us giving and them taking — kind of like a bad boyfriend. And yet, we adore, feed and house them, and we constantly try to please them in a hopelessly co-dependent kind of way. What does that say about us?

“There’s a part of us as human beings that I think is attracted to dominance in other creatures,” says psychotherapist Lois Abrams, Ph.D., who practices in Los Alamitos, Calif. “There’s a part of us that likes to be controlled.”

To be fair, we may not really have a choice. A pair of recent studies point to the persuasively manipulative ways felines have of turning us into putty in their paws.

A study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America makes the case that ages ago cats deliberately and cunningly domesticated themselves and so they could persuade people to give them free food and shelter — sometimes against their owners' better judgment.

“Cats do not perform directed tasks and their actual utility is debatable, even as mousers,” wrote the study authors. “Accordingly, there is little reason to believe an early agricultural community would have actively sought out and selected the wildcat as a house pet.”

Once in our houses, cats apparently began to train us to give them exactly what they wanted.

A study published this month in Current Biology revealed that today's cats have learned to motivate people to fill their food dishes by combining an urgent cry or meowing sound with the comforting sound of a purr, a noise that’s annoying yet endearing and definitely difficult to ignore.

Experienced cat owners have long known that to be true. They’ve been interpreting their cats’ vocalizations for years.

While “feed me” might be the most frequent feline command, cats have a lot more to say and many ways of expressing their demands. Take Willow, who lives with Fran Pennock Shaw of Lancaster, Penn. The 11-year-old gray tabby makes a small chirping sound to indicate that Shaw should pet her. A string of chirping sounds invites play or other intensive attention.

“She makes at least a dozen different sounds that are usually connected to a certain thing she wants me to do,” Shaw says. “Combined with her body language, she can communicate to me everything she wants me to do and, of course, I do it.”

Shaw says there are lots of reasons she does Willow’s bidding. She believes that cats and dogs are intellectually and emotionally stimulated by human attention. And, she asks, why keep cats around if we don’t want them to interact or communicate with us? But most importantly, she responds to Willow because she loves her.

“Willow is my baby,” Shaw says. “I treated my dog Tuffy the same way. Even my guinea pig got 100 percent of my attention. I wouldn’t ignore a child, so how could I ignore a pet?”

Manipulation by meow
Manipulation by meow isn’t the only technique cats use to bend us to their will. Susie Q, a 10-year-old tortoiseshell and white Scottish Fold who lives in Toronto with Michelle West, uses her paws to indicate exactly where West should scratch her.

“She waves her paw for the hand she wants me to scratch with,” West says. “She waves her left paw in the air to get my right hand to scratch the left side of her neck and the opposite for the other side. If I use the wrong hand, she shakes her head so I stop and waves the proper paw for the proper hand.”

West admits that it took her a while to catch on to Susie Q’s directions. That’s probably because cats have learned that people aren’t very good at understanding body language, so they are more likely to communicate vocally rather than with gestures, says veterinarian Sophia Yin, a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior who lives in Davis, Calif. An individual cat may have learned that a particular movement will prompt a person to perform a certain action, Yin says, but they don’t usually point with their paws.

So who has better coercion, er, communication skills — cats or dogs? Yin says it’s cats, paws down.

“Cats seem to be regularly able to get people to feed them at 5 in the morning when the humans would rather be sleeping, yet have no demands put on them for anything,” she says. “Dogs tend to be able to get what they want, too, but humans also have expectations for dogs to behave in certain ways.”

Cats are quick studies
Let’s face it: Some manipulation is part of any communication system. In evolutionary terms, animals that can use signals to manipulate others have an advantage. Cats are just speeding up the process.

“In the case of cats and humans, cats are learning to do this [on their own] during their lifetimes rather than being selected to do it,” says Karen McComb, lead author of the Current Biology study. “I would guess that humans are generally not too bothered about being manipulated.”

But Abrams, the California psychotherapist, believes there’s a little more to it. She says we’re driven by two competing emotions: the desire to nurture a small, dependent animal and the challenge presented by a cat’s independence. When we’ve gained the approval of a cat, she says, it’s 100 percent the cat’s initiative. Call it the Sally Field syndrome: You like me! You really like me!

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.