Cats Really Are Emotionally Attached to Their Owners—Even if They Don't Obviously Show It
Cats are often thought of as solitary, independent, and autonomous—especially by non-cat-owners. Many cats seem aloof; perhaps a cat appreciates a human that provides its daily meals and head scratches, but do they really care about humans? A new study finds that, despite all their efforts, cats form important bonds with their human counterparts.
The study, led by Oregon State University researcher Kristyn Vitale, looked at the emotional bond between domestic cats and humans. To measure attachment, the study used something called a "strange situation" test, which is a test that’s been used on both dogs and human infants for decades. In this version of the test, cats or kittens are brought into a new environment along with their owner for two minutes, followed by two minutes alone, followed by a two-minute reunion, when the owner comes back in. The researchers watch the cats closely during these stages. Do the cats ignore their owners? Do they explore the room, circle back to check in with the owners, and head back to explore the room? Are they meowing a lot? (According to the Humane Society, meowing is interpreted as a sign of distress in new environments.)
Vitale concluded that cats show about the same amount and degree of attachment to their owners as dogs do—and, actually, as infants do to parents. She found that about 65% of both cats and kittens are classified as “securely bonded” to their owners, compared with 58% for dogs and 65% for human infants. That “secure bonding” is shown by the cat being less stressed, seeking out a human for comfort in a strange environment, and showing a reduced heart rate. It’s basically measuring whether a cat is more comfortable when a specific human is around.
Dogs get the bulk of this kind of fun testing; their attention spans are a little bit longer, and they show more desire to actually complete tasks, as anyone who’s tried to train a cat knows. (It’s possible, but it’s exactly as hard as you’d expect, says National Geographic.) Dogs are more like companions or even coworkers, bred to assist in hunting, herding, or other tasks alongside humans. Cats, on the other hand, are independent contractors: just as useful as pest control, but more independent. They just kind of do their own thing.
This has all added up to create the impression that cats may not be as strongly bonded to humans as dogs are—they don’t seem to really need us. This new study finds otherwise, which is a relief to those of us with pet cats. It may not always be obvious, but cats do, at least according to this study, like us.