How cats learned to get humans to do what they want.

July 14, 2018 3 min read

Our cats can coerce us into giving them titbits of the best food, snuggles on the sofa, and a chance to pillow their heads on the laptop. You could say they've turned us into their servants.

How did cats learn to bring humans to heel? 

Believe it or not, there's a scientific explanation for it.


Cats use their voices to control their people.

Research published in Current Biology confirms that cats developed meowing to communicate their needs to humans. Researchers at the University of Sussex found that the humans - even those who did not have a cat - could tell when a cat wanted food from the tenor of its meow. The more exaggerated the cat's cry, the more likely the human was to respond. 

Still, meowing is not a language. Nicholas Nicastro, a graduate student at Cornell University, discovered that "Though they lack language, cats have become very skilled at managing humans to get what they want." Cats, Nicastro said, have learned what humans respond to. But when they meow, cats "are not using true language because, among other reasons, cats do not know the meaning of their own meows." 

Here's what's odd, though. We know what a cat's meow means even if the cat doesn't. In other words, we speak cat language better than cats do.


Relationships with humans kept cats alive over time.

The ancient DNA of 209 cats tells the story of how people domesticated felines - sort of. Archaeologists struggle with studying cats because cats have left us few records despite living in human houses for 9,000 years. Archaeologists mainly dig up ancient garbage dumps so they find the bones of pigs, chickens, and cows since those animals provide food sources for humans. Few civilizations, however, have eaten cat meat, meaning archaeologists have to look inside ancient sarcophaguses and even the British Museum to find extractable cat DNA. Teams of archaeologists have found enough evidence to piece together what happened.

The first domestic cats proved to be able rodent catchers for early farmers. Over time, people learned to enjoy a cat's presence for comfort as well as for help dealing with mice. Cats even joined humans on ships as rat catchers more than 6,500 years ago. Since they lived so close to people, cats enjoyed significant protection from natural predators. Thus, the feline family flourished. In a way, humans were cats' evolutionary survival strategy because symbiosis defined our relationship with cats from the outset.


Despite our long co-existence, cats find us puzzling.

A report from says cats are not social learners in spite of their close association with people. Unlike humans and dogs, cats don't understand feedback from other creatures. That's why they want to hang out and do cat things, but they don't always respond to your requests, commands, or insistent calls. Cats don't care what you think, not because they are cold hearted, but because their brains are wired differently from ours. Basically, we understand what they want from us, but they may not always grasp what we expect in return.


Still, cats and humans influence each other.

Studies show that cats really do love people, especially women. Cats don't think of us as feelingless food dispensers. In fact, cats and humans seem to have a unique bond that humans have not developed with any other animals. And yes, it's most pronounced in women. One scholar at the University of Virginia said, "Female owners have more intense relationships with their cats than do male owners." Does that mean a cat is a woman's best friend?


Final thoughts.

Does your cat prod you into getting out of bed to prepare her a Saturday morning snack? Or give you an adorable look that earns him extra playtime even though your to-do list is waiting? Your cat's not being manipulative. He or she is merely enacting the next stage of a drama that's been going on for almost 9,000 years. 

And cat lovers know we wouldn't have it any other way. 

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