It’s a widely held assumption, even by some cat owners, that domestic felines don’t get much socially from being our pets. But a new study out Monday is the latest to suggest that many cats form healthy bonds with their humans, in much the same way as dogs and human babies do.
There’s a rich history of research looking into the bonds between dogs and people—and for that matter, between human parents and their non-furry children. But according to Kristyn Vitale, a researcher at the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University and lead author of the new study, the same can’t be said for cats, despite the fact they’ve been traveling alongside humanity for thousands of years.
“I think part of the reason for this paucity of research into cat-human interactions may stem from the idea that cats are not especially social animals,” Vitale told Gizmodo via email. “However, cats display a range of social behavior, and recent research indicates we may be underestimating the importance of social interaction in the lives of cats.”
One way to better understand these interactions, the team theorized, was to study the level of “attachment” cats have to their owners, a concept you might recall from psychology class.
Put simply, it’s the idea that social creatures form two basic types of bonds to the other creatures they interact with, often depending on their past experiences. They either have a secure attachment to someone, meaning they feel heartened by the other’s presence and aren’t fearful of losing it, or they have an insecure attachment, which can manifest in other ways. If they’re “insecure-ambivalent,” they might be so afraid to lose that bond that they react by doing as much as possible to keep them close (you might call this “clingy” behavior); if they’re “insecure-avoidant,” they might be the sort of creature to avoid getting close to others in the first place.
Obviously, we’ve largely studied the types of attachments people make to other humans and the behaviors and thoughts linked to these attachment styles. But there’s also been research looking at how dogs and non-human primates fit into these categories. And with dogs, research has generally shown that they behave very much like human babies do with their caretakers.
Vitale and her team decided to conduct a simple attachment test, previously used with dogs, on cats instead. The first wave of tests was performed with the owners of nearly 80 kittens, all under the age of eight months. They hung out with their owners for two minutes in an unfamiliar room, then the owners left for two minutes, and then the owners returned for another two minutes.
The unfamiliar setting, according to attachment theory, would make at least some cats stressed out without their humans there. And many cats were, judging by the mournful-sounding meows and other stressed out behaviors they often made while alone. During the reunion, the team then carefully watched how the cats behaved upon seeing their owner again.
“Cats mainly reacted in one of three ways to the return of their owner,” Vitale said. “Secure cats greet their owner and then return to relaxed play and exploration (known as the Secure Base Effect), while insecure cats do not return to relaxed behavior and either excessively cling to their owner (insecure-ambivalence) or avoid their owner (insecure-avoidance).”
The key finding was that the cats fell into these subsets of attachment at roughly the same rates as dogs and infants. Around two-thirds clearly displayed a secure attachment to their owners, while most insecure cats were clingy and remained stressed. Subsequent experiments showed that these results stayed largely the same for the same group of cats six weeks later, as well as for a new group of older cats past the age of one.
Because of the similarities between cats, dogs, and human babies in their attachment styles, the authors said, it’s likely that the same intrinsic attributes and traits that make dogs and babies go puppy-eyed for their caregivers aren’t wholly unique to them. Cats bond to us, too, just in their own, not always apparent way.
The team’s results were published Monday in Current Biology.
Whenever you’re trying to study the social lives of animals, there’s the important caveat that we can’t truly ever know what Ms. Tuffers thinks about us. The most anyone can do is study their behaviors and infer what those could mean in a limited context (even in the current study, Vitale and her team couldn’t classify the attachment style of nine cats)
So you can’t look at these results, Vitale cautioned, and use it to figure out how much cats tend to “like” or “dislike” us—that’s not the question they were trying to answer. And just because a third of cats might display insecure behavior, that doesn’t mean they can’t have a beneficial relationship with their humans. There also needs to be more, ideally larger studies done to confirm whether cats are as securely attached as the results suggest.
But we do know that people who regularly forge secure attachments to others are generally better off in life, and there’s no reason to think secure cats aren’t better off, too. So in that sense, cat owners and the cat-curious should be happy that they do look to us for comfort.
“The majority of cats are securely attached to their owner and use them as a source of security,” said Vitale.
For those wondering just how to tell if their specific cat does indeed like them, Vitale said, there are probably some strong signals to look out for, though they won’t be the same between any two cats.
“Individual cats may show they ‘like’ their owner in various ways. More social cats will show affection by rubbing on their owners or sitting on their lap while more independent cats may show their affection by just being in the same room with their owner. There is a lot of variation in how cats display social behavior toward people,” she said.
Vitale and her team next plan to more deeply study the ins-and-outs of cat attachment. This includes learning to what degree the earliest social interactions they have can leave a lasting imprint on their attachment styles throughout their nine lives, and if there are ways to change their attachment styles for the better later on in life (in one experiment in the current study, a six-week training course for some cat-owner pairs on how to better socialize with each other didn’t seem to do much). That’s especially important to figure out for fostered and sheltered cats, who might have grown up without their mothers or any human owners and may struggle to bond with a new owner.