The mutual failure to communicate puts indoor cats in a precarious position, since once sealed in our homes they have no way to survive without human patronage. To complicate matters, due to what Bradshaw describes as their “weakness in social skills”, cats are almost impervious to punishment, fixated on food exclusively as a reward, and so are very tough to train. We can’t teach them our ways.
Which is where cat-human interaction studies take a fascinating turn: as they so often have in their relationship with humanity, cats take the initiative and tame us. Trapped in a house and with no other recourse, every pet cat sets about the daunting task of bringing its thick-skulled human to heel. Since this chore is well beyond the scope of normal feline (anti-) social life, the cat must more or less start from scratch, performing what amounts to a set of tests on human subjects. Indeed, it turns out that what we think of a cats’ affection or love for us is not only not unconditional, it is actively conditioning. Cats are the experimental architects; we are Pavlov’s dogs.
Some of this is obvious and even delightful to cat lovers. “Honeybun is the biggest love-mush,” says an owner quoted in one study. “She demands affection and will actually ‘hit’ people with her paw to get them to pet her or keep petting her.” But we are oblivious to much of the taming process.
Many cats somehow figure out, for instance, that humans respond well to sound. Take the pleasing trill of a purr. Among cats, this tonal buzzing in the vocal folds has no fixed significance—it can mean anything from “I am happy” to “I am about to die”. But to humans the sound is welcome and even rather flattering. So within our earshot, many cats apparently rejigger their purposeless purr to include a barely audible, very annoying, and insistent signal, a cry—usually for food—that resembles a baby’s wail. “The embedding of a cry within a call we normally associate with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response,” purr researcher Karen McComb has said. She described this “solicitation purr”, which people register subconsciously, as “less harmonic and thus more difficult to habituate to,” and claimed that cats increase the behavior when they realize it gets results.
—The Lion in the Living Room by Abigail Tucker, p. 131-132