Cats in the cradle: Are our pets trying to mimic our children?
(My cat doing her best human baby impression)
I’ve been told by many people that domestic cats meow to mimic the sound of a baby crying. The thinking is that if they sound more like our offspring, we’ll be more likely to feed and care for them. I’ve always wondered if this was true or not. Anyone who owns a cat knows that they are mysterious creatures. How would anyone know why they’ve decided to meow at us? How would you go about testing this question in a scientific way? I thought I’d do some research on the matter.
Pet cats are known to meow in situations where they require something, such as food or being let out (and immediately back in again). In contrast, feral cats in the wild make relatively little noise when communicating with one another. So, this suggests that meowing is a behaviour that developed as cats were domesticated. It is a means to communicate with humans in order to get what they want. Is it possible that they evolved this behaviour in order to mimic human babies?
The only bit of hard evidence I could find linking cat meowing to baby cries is a study which showed that the two were composed of similar frequency sounds. While this is interesting, I wouldn’t say that it really proves anything. The problem here is that proving that a evolutionary relationships like this exist can be a bit difficult.
There are lots of examples of domestication shaping the behaviours and appearance of animals. All pet dogs are descended from something similar to a wolf but have been shaped according to human needs and desires. Another good example is the ways in which we have shaped the appearance of fruit crops over many generations to better fit our needs. Wild bananas were once full of seeds and looked nothing like the fruit we can buy at the supermarket these days.
Humans clearly have the ability to mould other organisms to an extent. Therefore, it’s not unthinkable that cats could have developed these behaviours in response to us. If cats that made meowing noises are more likely to be fed by humans, then they would be more likely to survive and potentially pass on that behaviour to offspring. It is possible that making noises similar to babies gave some cats a huge advantage. But is there really any evidence for this having occurred? Are cats really copying human children?
I think the answer is that we don’t really know. There are some similarities in the sounds made, but these similarities are also present in many infant mammals. This gives rise to the possibility that this kind of behaviour is genetically inherent in mammals due to shared ancestry. We may never really know the answer, but I think that these kind of questions are what make evolution so interesting. It’s always a bit of a puzzle with multiple possibilities.