Study Finds Cats Connect to Their Owners as Much as Dogs Do

cat playing

The personality traits and behaviors of animals are often stereotyped. Dogs are often seen as creatures that create strong bonds with their human family and love to spend time with people. On the other hand, cats are typically labeled as being aloof and only forming feline-human relationships on their terms. However, a recent study suggests that this is not necessarily the case and that cats connect to their owners just as much as dogs.

An Overview of the Study

The study into cat-human relationships was conducted by a team from Oregon State University. They wanted to compare the feline-human relationship with the relationships formed between dogs and their humans. One of the motivations for the research was that there are fewer studies focusing on feline-human relationships, and those that have been conducted show that humans potentially underestimate the socio-cognitive abilities of cats. Following the study, the researchers concluded that cats share many of the same attachments and social traits to humans as dogs and human babies. The team published their findings in Current Biology. Involved in the study were kittens aged between three and eight months. The researchers observed how the subjects behaved with their human caregivers and without them in an experimental method called a Secure Base Test (SBT). Each subject faced an attachment test, which involved putting the cats in a room with their caregivers for two minutes. The humans were then removed, and the cats were left alone for another two minutes. At then of the two minutes, the human caregivers were returned to the room. This stage was the crucial part of the research, as the team observed the cats’ behavior when they were reunited with their human. The researchers were then able to categorize the cats’ behavior in accordance with several identified attachment styles.

The Attachment Style Categories

The categories were identified based on similar previous studies conducted with human babies, dogs, and primates. One category was those who displayed secure attachment behaviors. These included the cats that showed a contact-exploration balance with the human and reduced stress response. Another attachment style category was the insecure attachment group. The cats that were put into this category were then put into subcategories depending on their behavioral response. Those who demonstrated approach/avoidance conflict were put into the disorganized attachment group, those who showed avoidance behavior were put into the avoidant attachment group, and cats with excessive proximity-seeking behavior were put in the ambivalent subcategory of the insecure attachment group.

The Findings of the Study

The researchers were able to classify 70 kittens from the group into categories. However, nine of the kittens participating in the research were unclassifiable. Although stereotypical views of cats may suggest that more felines would fit into the insecure attachment category than the secure category, the opposite was true. 64.3 percent of the classifiable cats in the study were categorized as securely attached. Only 35.7 percent of the classifiable kittens used in the study were categorized as having insecure attachment styles. Of the kittens that landed in this category, the researchers found that 84 percent displayed behaviors that put them into the ambivalent group. They also found that 12 percent were avoidant, while only four percent were ambivalent. The researchers realized that their results regarding insecure and secure attachment style showed similarities with findings from similar attachment studies that used human children. There were also similarities between the findings of this study and previous research studies involving dogs and primates. It was from such studies that the attachment style criteria came from that were used in the cat study.

An Extension to the Study

In some respects, the study was limited, as it only focused on cat behavior in one situation. Therefore, the study was extended to learn more about whether it was possible to predict attachment styles by reinforcement opportunities and differential socialization alone. Only a portion of the kittens from the original study was invited to participate in the second stage. It involved the kittens and their caregivers enrolling in a six-week training and socialization intervention. At the beginning of the course, a baseline was set for the 39 class kittens and 31 control kittens. The researchers categorized each cat as either secure or in one of the insecure subcategories at the beginning of the training. The researchers found that there were no differences in the numbers in each of these groups two months later. The findings of the extension to the study suggest that once an attachment style is established, it will remain the same over time. Even if training and socialization training is given, the attachment style will not change. Their findings also suggest that reinforcement is likely a contributory factor to the development of an attachment style. Furthermore, the consistency in the kittens is likely to mean that heritable factors play a part in attachment style. For example, the kitten’s natural temperament may influence the attachment style.

Predictions for Adulthood

As cats retain some of their juvenile behaviors into adulthood, the scientists predicted that the attachment style of the kittens would remain the same into adulthood. Therefore, the researchers used 38 cats over one year of age to repeat the original study. The researchers discovered that adult cats also had clear attachment styles. Interestingly, there was a similar distribution between the categories as there was in the kitten study.

What Do the Findings Mean?

According to People.com, the study’s findings dispel the myths about the bonds between cats and their owners. The research demonstrates that cats have a similar capacity as children and dogs to form secure and insecure attachments to their caregivers. While only 35 percent of the cats showed insecure attachments, 65 percent of the felines in the study showed behaviors consistent with secure attachments. They have concluded that further studies should focus on cats’ socio-cognitive abilities and compare feline attachment to that of other species further. Doing so will give a better understanding of feline behavior and the attachments they form with other species.

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