Cat study bonding, Like Kids and Dogs, Your Cat Really Does Need You.
It’s a common stereotype that dogs bond strongly with their owners and are highly dependent on them, while cats are aloof and independent—and therefore exhibit weaker attachment to their humans. Cat lovers would beg to differ, and now there’s some science to bolster our case. According to a new study by scientists at Oregon State University, most kittens and cats show a marked attachment to their owners or caregivers, especially when stressed, on par with prior studies involving dogs and human infants. And that bonding ability is likely one reason cats have flourished in human homes.
“Like dogs, cats display social flexibility in regard to their attachments with humans. I think a lot of people don’t think about the fact that the majority of cats use their owners as a source of security when they’re stressed,” said co-author Kristyn Vitale. “We have this stereotype that cats don’t depend on their owners. But it makes sense [that they would], because they are still living in a state of dependency in human homes.”
There have been a number of attachment studies on human infants, primates, and dogs, usually involving tracking how the subjects respond after being left alone in an unfamiliar room for several minutes, followed by a reunion with their caregivers. Vitale designed her feline study along similar lines. She recruited local cat and kitten owners to bring their pets to OSU’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab. They used both kittens (between 3 and 8 months old) and cats in the study, because they wanted to verify that attachment behavior persisted into adulthood.
The felines spent two minutes in an unfamiliar room with their owner, who sat on an X in the middle of a circle marked on the floor and could only interact with their cat when the animal entered the circle. The owner then left the room, leaving the feline alone for two minutes, followed by a two-minute reunion, with the owner once again seated on the X within the circle. The researchers then examined the resulting video footage of how the cats behaved upon reunion with their owners, grouping them into three categories: secure attachment, insecure-ambivalent, and insecure-avoidant.
Securely attached cats actively greeted their owners upon reunion, yet were sufficiently calm and confident not to cling too much. “They’re able to use their owner as a secure base to explore out from,” said Vitale, with behavior evenly balanced between greeting their owner and exploring the unfamiliar space.
That’s in marked contrast to the behavior of cats deemed insecure-ambivalent. In that case, “We see persistent stress after the owner’s return,” said Vitale. “Rather than going back to exploring, they cling to their owner’s lap, sometimes engaging in a kind of spinning behavior where they almost can’t get comfortable in the owner’s lap.” An insecure-avoidant cat “shows very little visible response to their owner’s return,” said Vitale—not greeting their owner, ignoring them, or turning away.
Vitale et al. found that 65% of the cats and kittens demonstrated secure attachment to their owners. “Especially with the proportion of secure to insecure animals, it closely matched those proportions in the dog and human studies, with the majority being securely attached,” said Vitale. Once those bonds had formed, they proved just as persistent and strong as the bonds noted between humans and dogs.
She and her colleagues also evaluated the degree of separation anxiety in the kittens and cats, based on their vocalization frequency: how often they meowed or meeped in distress when their owners left the room. As predicted in the literature, secure and insecure-ambivalent felines showed more separation anxiety than felines whose behavior fell into the insecure-avoidant category.
As a follow-up, some of the kittens also underwent six weeks of training and socialization with their owners at OSU to see if this changed their attachment behavior, compared to the control group. There were no significant differences in the relative percentage of kittens exhibiting the various attachment styles. In fact, 81% of the kittens fell into the same category upon follow-up testing, suggesting that there may also be heritable factors, like temperament, at work.
“There’s other things going on here besides just interaction with the owner that’s influencing these styles,” said Vitale. “In the human literature, how the caretaker responds to the infant is very influential on how that infant forms an attachment. So it’s most likely an interaction between environment and innate factors.”