Does Your Cat Really Care About You? Yes!
The musical “Cats” depicts the feline world as hidden, mysterious, and quite apart from human society. When they interact with us, it’s on their own terms. But is this portrayal accurate? Worldwide, domestic cats outnumber dogs. Yet scientists have studied dog social cognition far more than that of cats. Dogs clearly form attachments, particularly to humans. Indeed, this may be the basis for their success in our homes and hearts. Far less is known about whether cats, which also live among us, attach to humans in a similar way.
Methods for testing the bonds between human infants and their caregivers are well known. Similar tests have been developed for use with non-human primates and dogs. One of these, the Secure Base Test (SBT), looks at how subjects respond to being left alone in an unknown environment. Using behavioral criteria similar to that used in experiments with human children, researchers tested 79 kittens, aged 3-8 months. To assess how attached the kittens were to their caregivers, they were separated from their caregivers for two minutes. After being reunited, researchers observed and categorized the kittens’ behavior.
Securely attached kittens showed reduced stress once the caregiver returned. They sought contact but also continued to explore. Insecurely attached cats remained stressed and either stayed near the caregiver constantly (ambivalent attachment), avoided the caregiver (avoidant attachment), or displayed a mix of these behaviors (disorganized attachment). Seventy of the kittens displayed a distinct attachment style, with about two-thirds (64.3%) securely attached. The balance were insecurely attached. Most of these were ambivalent (84%). To see if socialization could affect attachment, a group of the kittens and their caregivers then participated in a six-week controlled intervention. At the end, the kittens were re-tested, but the attachment style did not change. This suggests that attachment may be more of a heritable trait, like temperament.
A final experiment examined whether attachment behavior persisted into adulthood. The researchers tested 38 cats over one year old with the SBT. The distribution of attachment styles was comparable to that of the kittens. About two-thirds (65.8%) were secure and 34.2% were insecure. Overall, the results demonstrated that cats form secure and insecure attachments to humans. And they seem to attach in rates similar to human children and canines. Previous research showed that children form secure/insecure attachments at a 65%/35% ratio, and dogs at a 58%/42% ratio.
Like dogs, cats are social generalists. They display distinct attachment styles towards caregivers and these styles are stable into adulthood. Advocates for domestic cats can point to this study as further evidence that cats need stable homes just as dogs do. Cats’ aloofness and seeming independence can make it appear that they don’t really care who they live with as long as they have food and shelter. This research refutes that belief and shows that cats do indeed become attached to those who care for them.