A new battle is waging in that age-old war between cats and dogs. The reason? According to the latest reports, cats are capable of forming a stronger bond with their owners than dogs. Yep, according to animal experts, those creatures we’ve always thought of as the height of independent aloofness might just care for us after all. Whereas dogs on the other hand… well, the less said there the better. But can it be true? Is Felix really capable of a stronger bonding experience than Fido? For anyone who shares their life with a cat, it’s probably no surprise to learn that felines are capable of something more than the occasional fleeting friendship. But just how strong and prevalent those bonds of friendship can be may do more than raise the odd eyebrow.
In September 2019, a team of researchers led by Kristyn R. Vitale, Alexandra C. Behnke, and Monique A.R.Udell of the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University published their latest research into the field of animal psychology in Current Biology, with some very noteworthy conclusions. According to the team, cats’ bond more with the humans around them than dogs do, and around the same amount as infants. The conclusion was drawn using the “secure base test” of experimentation, a type of test that’s been used for years to measure the bond between dogs, primates, and infants with their human caretakers. During the experiment, cats and kittens were bought into the all-new surrounds of the team’s laboratory by their owners. For two minutes, cat and owner sat together. The owner would then leave the room, leaving the cat alone. 2 minutes later, the owner returned …. and this is where the researchers began paying attention. After experiencing a mild amount of stress when left alone, how would the cat react when their caregiver returned? Would they even react at all?
Of all the cats involved in the test, a significant sixty-five percent greeted their owner on their return. Welcome over, the cats returned to exploring the room, occasionally popping back to their owner just to check-in. According to the researchers, the cat’s reactions signaled a strong attachment to their owner, demonstrating that they saw their caregiver as a source of safety in even unfamiliar surroundings. “This may be an adaptation of the bond they would have with their parents when they were young,” the team’s lead, Krysten Vitale, explained to the New York Times, adding that the cat’s behavior suggested they were thinking: “Everything’s OK. My owner’s back, I feel comforted and reassured, and now I can go back to exploring.” Of the cats surveyed, only 35% displayed signs of continued anxiety when their owners returned to the room, anxiety which manifested in them either clinging to their owners or avoiding them altogether.
Compare the results of the study to what we’ve discovered when the same test is performed on infants, and the conclusions speak volumes. 65% of infants exhibit behaviors associated with a strong bond with their parents- exactly the same number as in the feline study. And as for dogs? Only 58% of dogs show the same secure attachment- a full 7% less than cats. “I think there’s this idea that cats don’t really depend on their owner and don’t need them,” Vitale explains to Popular Science. “But in this test at least, what we’re seeing is that most cats use their owner for their sense of security.” Vitale’s latest study isn’t the first time she’s thrown water on the idea of cat’s being the solitary, standoffish creatures of legend. Previously, she’s looked into the traditional idea that cats tend more to the independent than the social, and again, found the stereotype a far cry from reality.
After studying whether cats’ behaviors are influenced by outside factors, she concluded that they’re far from the anti-social tykes they’re made out to be. In a study consisting of two experiments, 2 groups of cats were placed in a room with a stranger. For the first two minutes, the stranger ignored the cat. For the second two minutes, they called it by name and petted it whenever it ventured near. In the second half of the test, the same strategy was repeated, only this time with the cat’s owner rather than a stranger. In both cases, the cat’s behaviors mirrored those of the humans: during the two minutes of being ignored, they did much the same. As soon as the human started paying them attention, so did the cat start actively engaging and spending time with them.
“We found [cats] spent significantly more time with people who were paying attention to them than people who were ignoring them,” Vitale spelled out in “The quality of being sociable: The influence of human attentional state, population, and human familiarity on domestic cat sociability’ published in Behavioral Processes. Further studies have also shown that cats much prefer to play with us than they do with their toys- and not just when food’s involved. So, why exactly do we tend to think of dogs as man’s best friend, and cat’s as our haughty, standoffish, “only here for the food” roommates? According to Karen Hiestand, an animal expert and trustee of International Cat Care, it could all come down to history. “Dogs and humans are very similar and have lived together for a long time. In a way, it has been co-evolution. With cats, it is way more recent. They come from a solitary ancestor that isn’t a social species.”
Ancestral loners or no ancestral loners, Vitale’s research is throwing new light on our modern-day companions – and the results are illuminating. If cats depend on us a lot more than we’ve previously thought (more so even than dogs), maybe it’s time to put those age-old tropes well and truly to bed… not to mention factor in a few more rounds with the laser pen.