Hands up – asked whether cats are just as good at bonding with their owners as dogs, how many of you’d say no? A good percentage, no doubt. Cats are notorious for being aloof, independent creatures of mystery, whereas dogs are known as their ever loyal, ever affectionate, loving counterparts. Cats stick around because we feed them – dogs stick around because they love us. Or so we thought… according to new research, we may have been very wrong about our not so friendly felines all this time. In a myth-busting investigation into the enigmatic ways of domestic cats, it was discovered we’ve been vastly underestimating our cat’s social skills all these years.
The findings, which were published in the journal Current Biology on September 23, 2019, suggested that just like dogs and children, cats form deep bonds with their owners and are capable of some pretty deep levels of affection. “Like dogs, cats display social flexibility in regard to their attachments with humans,” Dr. Kristyn Vitale, an animal behavior scientist at Oregon State University told Science Daily. “The majority of cats are securely attached to their owner and use them as a source of security in a novel environment.”
For years, animal behaviorists and scientists have concentrated their studies into the emotional connections between pets and their caregivers on dogs, assuming that cats and their owners have no emotional connections to actually investigate. As it turns out, they were wrong. Ideas around the subject began to change in 2011 when the Smithsonian Magazine found out that the bond between humans and cats is complex, and much like the bonds between pairs of humans. In 2017, Dr. Vitale and a small group of her colleagues discovered that cats prefer playing and interacting with their owners overeating some tasty treats or playing with a brand new toy. In 2019, a further study added fuel to the fire with the discovery that cats are flexible in their behavior, and will adapt their behaviors depending on how much attention their owners lavish on them. It’s also been noted that cats are not quite the aloof, devil may care creatures we’ve always thought them to be but can actually pick up on our ever-changing moods and whims- and can even learn their own names.
In the most recent study completed by Dr. Vitale, the “strange situation” tests designed in the 1970s to test the bond between parents and infants was replicated – this time, using cats and their owners rather than kids and their parents. To kick off the test, a cat from one of the 70 kittens and 38 adult felines that took part in the study was placed in a room with its owner for two minutes. After the two minutes were up, the owner left the room for two minutes, before returning for another two minutes. Researchers then noted the cat’s reaction to their owner’s return to assess their type of attachment style (which basically fall along one of two lines: secure attachments suggest the subject is comfortable and secure enough that its owner will look after its needs to explore their surrounds, while subjects with insecure attachments tend to display anxiety or fear towards their owner, licking their lips, twitching their tales, or avoiding their owners when they returned. “The characteristics of a secure cat are greeting their owner and then going back to what they were doing,” Vitale says. “That is how a secure human also behaves.”
Of the felines surveyed, around 64% demonstrated signs of having a secure attachment to their owner. The findings additionally supported the idea that feline bonds with their owners were just as strong in adult cats as they were in kittens.
With a percentage that high, the study is making animal behaviorists rethink all their old ideas about cats. “As humans, we may be sometimes fail to give the animal world the dignity of sentient emotional existence,” cat behaviorist and host of “My Cat From Hell”, Jackson Galaxy has said, before adding that the reputation of cats being standoffish and distant has largely come about as a result of us making unfair (and unflattering) comparisons to dogs. While dogs tend to show their attachments in ways that are very easy for us to understand, cats do so in subtler ways- but to say a dog that wags his tail and slobbers over you is more loving than a cat that simply gives you a sniff then walks away is a gross over reduction. Just because cats display their love in very different ways to dogs, doesn’t mean that love is any less. As Certapet notes, if we want to understand what our cats are feeling, and specifically what they’re feeling about us, we need to pay close attention to their behaviors and try to decipher the meanings and emotions behind what they do as individuals –applying the same criteria we use to establish if a dog loves us to a very different species simply won’t wash. “Most cats look to their owners as a source of safety and security,” Vitale has explained. “It is important for owners to think about that. When (the owner) is in a stressful situation, how they’re behaving can actually have a direct impact on their cats’ behavior.”
So, there you have it. Cats do love us, even if they do their best to deny it. While a lot more research may be needed before we fully understand what happens in those little feline heads, there’s now more evidence than ever to suggest that cats have feelings – and even if they choose to express those feelings in ways we can’t always necessarily understand, that’s not to say they don’t exist. It looks like that age-old battle of cat’s vs dogs is well and truly back on…. let the games commence!