Anxious cats aren’t comforted by the scent of their absent human alone. It just reminds them that their human is gone.
Most cats that love their human form a strong bond and feel less stressed in their presence. You might often see your kitty snuggling up in your clothes and enjoy being around things that smell like you.
However, in a new study published in Applied Animal Behaviours Science, researchers found that the scent alone isn’t enough to keep them happy when they are alone.
“Olfaction (smell) is an important sense for cats, and it’s related to their social behaviour. But in our study, [owner-scented objects] did not have a stress-reducing effect,” says Kristyn Vitale of Unity College, US, who was part of the study. “The smell might even make matters worse for some.”
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As part of the study, cat owners put an item of clothing with their pets in an unfamiliar testing room. The owner then sat on the floor for a while before exiting the room and leaving the scented item with the cat.
Most of the kitties paid no attention to the scented item and acted just as stressed as when there were no ‘comfort items’ available. In fact, 38% of actually became more vocal when the scented item was in the room.
This suggested that the scent reminded them of their absent human and made them sad.
But when the owners returned, most of the happy cats rubbed against their owners in a display of bonding. This is a sign of the Secure Base Effect, where the cats felt happy and secure in the presence of their human. In this simulation, the researchers showed that a scented item did not elicit the same secure base effect.
The researchers suggest that leaving an item with a cat just isn’t as good and a real cuddle. Instead, they encourage owners to be present with their cat as much as possible to reduce anxiety.
If it lets you.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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