In a recent comment, I wrote:
Oddly enough, our cat often does come when called, and is rather good at figuring out what humans want and doing it. A few days ago a photographer came out here to take snaps of me for an AP story on NedaNet and was quite startled when I asked the cat to turn around so her head would face the camera, and she did it.
Our catâ€™s behavior is not doglike servility, though. She pays careful attention to human hands because she associates them with being petted, and sheâ€™s a total friction slut. As a result, you can often fetch her, or get her to move, with hand gestures. I made one that directed her attention towards the photographer.
By an odd coincidence, my wife Cathy insisted less than an hour later that I should watch a video of the Moscow Cats Theater (I’d post a link, but I haven’t found that exact one from here). And we both noticed something; as the cats are walking tightropes and so forth, the human trainers are using encouraging, guiding gestures that seem…familiar to us. And, in fact, the cats often seem visually fixated on the trainers’ hands.
Wild! It looks very much as though Cathy and I have accidentally trained into our cat one of the same responses the Moscow Cats Theater people use to program their far more elaborate tricks.
I am reminded of something I heard a lion-tamer say once; training big cats is not about dominance, it cannot be; it’s about pleasure and reward. Nor does it seem irrelevant that the cats in the video looked happy. I think what we were seeing was not work to them, it was guided play – motivated not by fear of doing poorly but by love of their trainers.
Our cat behaves the same way; she walks towards a gesturing human hand because she loves getting attention from her humans and believes the hand will pet and cherish her. Everything in her experience confirms this. (On the rare occasions we have to discipline, we do it with a shout or a squirt bottle.)
More cat ethology: some time back, I examined the mystery of the purr. My commenters and I never arrived at an explanation of why the cat’s purr is so appealing to humans that I found entirely satisfactory. Now, science may have provided one.
It seems there’s a woman named Elizabeth von Muggenthaler (wonderful name, so redolent of mad science and gothic castles!) who has discovered that cats purr in a range of acoustic frequencies that are widely known in the medical literature to stimulate tissue healing, especially of bone and connective tissue.
Ms. Muggenthaler does not propose to junk the conventional account that cats purr to express sociability and/or contentment, but she suggests that cats purr as a form of self-healing as well, and has designed various clever experiments that appear to confirm this.
She may also have explained why humans enjoy the sound. Like purring itself, the healing effects of gentle vibrations in those particular frequency ranges have probably been significant in the mammalian line long enough for humans to inherit a mild instinctive tropism for them. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the human ability to become fond of certain varieties of repetitive mechanical noises has a similar ground.