Are cats manipulative?

Domestic cats might seem to be manipulative sometimes to some people. However, if they get their way it is only because their human companions and providers want them to. The human caregiver is a willing participant and as such it cannot be said to be manipulative feline behaviour. It is more a case of humans willingly allowing themselves to be trained by their cat.

Manipulative cat
A little bit of fun in making the point that domestic cats are not manipulative as we define the word. Image: PoC.
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The classic circumstance where it occurs is when a cat is being fed. Some domestic cats have learned to develop a human baby-like meow which touches a primordial nerve in the human brain to the point where the human instinctively grabs the cat food and hopes and prays that their cat wants to eat it all, or at all.

Good observational learners

Yes, it could be said that domestic cats have trained themselves to develop this particularly seductive meow but it is with the agreement of the human in their lives. Domestic cats are good at learning behaviours from the humans. This is why they can sometimes open doors with a door handle. They watch their human do it and eventually they learn how to do it themselves. The same goes for fridges and I recently posted an example of a domestic cat turning on the faucet in a bathroom basin. The cat flooded the home but that’s another story.

Two reasons for the effective baby-like cry/meow

  1. The domestic cat learning this form of effective meow is an example of Darwinian evolution in my opinion. An individual domestic cat varies their meow slightly and he or she would have found that one version of it is more effective than the others and therefore reuses it and refines it. Cats are intelligent enough to do that as it is part of survival behaviour.
  2. The development of this baby-like meow may also originate in a cat’s learned behaviour as a kitten when communicating with their mother. Perhaps they are reverting to that kind of vocalisation as they relate to their human companion as a surrogate mother. There is no suggestion of manipulative behaviour in this learning process.

Example

One Internet author says that every morning her cats perch on her chest and make a “peculiar meow-purr combo”. She’s learned to link this behavior to a demand for breakfast by her cats. She then learned that she responds to this sound because she thinks of them as her babies. She is implying that her cats know that she thinks of them as her babies and therefore make baby-like sounds. That’s incorrect in my view. Domestic cats aren’t that intelligent and they aren’t manipulative.

Wild cats

They simply learn what is effective in the same way that lions, for example, in the wild, have learnt the most effective way to hunt. And the same goes for any other wild cat species. They are bright enough to learn how to maximise the chances of catching prey animals. Obviously the skill is inherited because this learning process is passed down in the DNA. But individual cats will also learn through experience (trial and error) after their mother has taught them the basics.

Defining ‘manipulative’

A domestic cat making a subtly effective meow sound when requesting food is a similar process of learning but, as mentioned, I would not describe it as manipulative. It probably pays to define the word “manipulative”. It means: exercising unscrupulous control or influence over a person or situation. The word “unscrupulous” is an important one in the definition. It means having no moral principles, dishonest or unfair. To be unscrupulous you have to understand morals and moral behaviour. This is beyond domestic cats. They are intelligent in their own way but the concept of moral behaviour is for humankind, developed by humankind to measure themselves against social norms and goals. This is the human world not the feline one.

Some more on ‘strange’ cat behavior

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