Cats might seem aloof, but new research shows they become just as attached to their humans as dogs and even children.
Kristyn Vitale, from Oregon State University, US, and colleagues set out to better understand the relationship between domesticated felines (Felis silvestris catus) and their owners because it’s been a neglected area of research until now.
“Several studies have been conducted looking at dog-human attachment bonds, but far fewer have looked at the cat-human bond,” she explains.
Secure attachment has been extensively studied in infants and is thought to be critically important for their development, giving them a source of comfort, security and confidence to venture out in the world.
To test the bond between 70 kittens and 38 adult cats and their humans, Vitale’s group used the Secure Base Test, a methodology previously used with primates and dogs.
In the test, they observed the cat’s response to a reunion with their caregiver after being briefly separated in a new environment. As with infants and dogs, the cats showed distinct attachment styles: secure attachment, insecure-ambivalent and insecure-avoidant.
To translate, when reunited with their owner, secure cats greeted their owners and returned to relaxed exploration (secure base effect), while insecure cats showed excessive clinginess or avoided them.
Intriguingly, about 65% of cats were securely attached – the same percentage as that observed in infants. The effect was seen in kittens and adults, and persisted in kittens after a socialisation intervention, indicating that the attachments are stable and present in adulthood.
Vitale wasn’t surprised at the findings, because attachment behaviour is thought to be biologically relevant.
“What this means is engaging in these behaviours helps to increase the likelihood of survival for the dependent individual,” she says.
“In humans, attachment behaviours such as crying or staying near their caretaker work to keep the child safe from harm. Because pet cats live in a state of dependency, with their owner providing all food and care for them, it is not surprising to see attachment behaviours exist towards human owners.”
Vitale was surprised, however, to find how similar the attachment was to that of children, confirming the researchers’ suspicion that cats’ socio-cognitive capacities have been underestimated until now.
“Although many stereotypes exist about cat social behaviour,” she says, “such as they are aloof or do not depend on their owner, this research indicates that the majority of cats are securely attached to their owner and use them as a source of security when stressed.”
The results could have implications for cat behaviour and welfare. The researchers plan to follow up with the thousands of cats and kittens that end up in animal shelters, to see if socialisation and fostering opportunities can impact attachment security.
The research is published in the journal Current Biology.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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