Even Shy Cats Are Bonded to Their Human Caregivers

A new study suggests that cats form ‘secure attachments’ to their owners, just like dogs and human babies do

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Cats don’t tend to be the most effusively affectionate animals, but that doesn’t mean our feline friends are indifferent to their owners. According to a new study in Current Biology, cats display distinct signs of attachment to their caregivers, much in the way that dogs and human babies do.

The team behind the study replicated a test that was developed in the 1970s to measure parent-infant bonds. One part of the original experiment involved placing a mother and baby in an unfamiliar room, where they would stay together for a few minutes, and then the mother would leave. Researchers watched to see how the baby reacted, and what his or her response was upon the mother’s return. “Securely attached” babies, according to that experiment, would be distressed when their mother leaves, but easily soothed upon her return. They also used their moms as a “safe base” to explore the unfamiliar environment. Babies with “insecure attachments” were divided into two categories. Those with “insecure-ambivalent attachments” were difficult to soothe when distressed, and exhibited clinginess to the parent. Those with “insecure-avoidant attachments” were not distressed when their moms left the room, and didn’t orient themselves to their parent while exploring the unfamiliar environment.

This model has been used to assess attachment security in dogs, but lead author Kristyn Vitale, a researcher at Oregon State University’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab, and her colleagues were curious as to how cats would fare. So they assembled 79 kittens and had them each spend two minutes in a new space with their owner. Then the owner would leave for two minutes, followed by a two minute reunion period.

Many kittens did show signs of distress—like unhappy vocalizations—when their humans left. The researchers weren’t able to classify nine of the kittens, but 70 did seem to fit a distinct attachment style. About 64.3 percent were “securely attached” to their owner, meaning that they appeared less stressed upon the human’s return to the room and balanced their time between giving attention to their human and exploring the new space. Around 36 percent of kittens continued to show signs of stress upon their owners’ return, and were classified as “insecure”; some clung to their owner and refused to check out the room, leading the researchers to classify them as “ambivalent,” while others steered clear of their humans altogether and were classified as “avoidant.”

Crucially, the proportion of secure-to-insecure cats roughly followed the pattern seen in both children and dogs. Or as Vitale tells Gizmodo’s Ed Cara, “The majority of cats are securely attached to their owner and use them as a source of security.” These results remained consistent when the researchers tested both kittens that had undergone six-week socialization training, and a group of 38 older cats.

“Once an attachment style has been established between the cat and its caregiver, it appears to remain relatively stable over time, even after a training and socialization intervention,” Vitale explains.

Speaking to Cara, Vitale cautions that the experiment doesn’t tell us much about whether cats “like” or “dislike” their owners—only that many seem to look to humans for security when they feel stressed out. Daniel Mills, an expert in veterinary behavioural medicine at the University of Lincoln who was not involved in the research, tells the Guardian’s Nicola Davis that it’s also hard to know whether the cats’ responses were particular to their individual owners, or whether they were simply finding comfort in a human presence. The new study, after all, did not test how the cats responded to a stranger.

But as Vitale points out, it would make sense for domesticated cats to have developed attachments to the humans who care for them. “In both dogs and cats, attachment to humans may represent an adaptation of the offspring-caretaker bond,” she says. “Attachment is a biologically relevant behavior.”

And though your cat might not lose its mind when you walk into the room, it could still be bonded to you. “Despite fewer studies [of feline attachments],” the study authors note, “research suggests we may be underestimating cats’ socio-cognitive abilities.”

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