Cats bond with their people too, study finds

Scientists say felines display similar ‘attachment styles’ with caregivers as dogs and children – but not everyone is convinced

Cats may sometimes seem aloof, contrary and utterly nonplussed by humans, but it turns out that might not be the full story.

Researchers say they have found that, like children and dogs, cats form emotional attachments to their caregivers including something known as “secure attachment” – a situation in which the presence of a caregiver helps them to feel secure, calm, safe and comfortable enough to explore their environment.

“Despite fewer studies, research suggests we may be underestimating cats’ sociocognitive abilities,” the authors of the study write.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology by researchers at Oregon State University in the US, involved owners and their kittens taking part in a simple exercise.

Each owner spent two minutes with their kitten, after which they left the room for two minutes, and then returned for a two-minute reunion. The behaviour of 70 kittens was monitored throughout.

The results reveal that 64% of the animals appeared less stressed during the reunion with their owner than during the separation and, during the reunion, showed a balance of roaming around and being in contact with their owner – a response the team say is evidence of secure attachment.

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The authors say the remaining 36% of kittens showed hallmarks of “insecure attachment” – remaining stressed upon reunion, with the majority seeking cuddles and the others either avoiding contact or appearing conflicted about what to do.

A similar split in secure versus insecure attachment style was seen in 38 adult cats, and the team say such a split has also been seen in previous research involving children and dogs with their caregivers.

Further experiments showed that subsequent training and socialisation of a subgroup of the kittens had little, if any, effect on attachment type. The researchers say that suggests that while such measures might influence the development of an attachment style to start with, once established such styles are pretty well stable.

“This may suggest that heritable factors, such as temperament, also influence attachment style and could contribute to its stability,” they write.

However, Prof Daniel Mills, an expert in veterinary behavioural medicine from the University of Lincoln who has previously studied human-cat relationships, said the research has flaws, including that the team did not explore other possible types of bonds and did not repeat their experiments with strangers. That, he said, means that the cats might have been responding more generally to social support from human presence, rather than showing attachment to a particular individual.

“At the moment, as far as we can tell, responses around the owner that look like attachment are often largely the result of previous reinforcement,” he added.

Help Them Adapt to New Environments. “The only thing that likes change is a four-week-old baby in a wet diaper.” Though puppies and kittens are easygoing, mature pets often need guidance transitioning into new spaces. Dr. Becker advises introducing them slowly. “Don’t just dump them in a new house and hope for the best.” Pheromone sprays are handy for making strange houses more inviting. “Cats,” notes Dr. Becker, exist as both predator and prey, and in predator mode, they need vertical surfaces like climbing towers to feel safe.”

While Mills added that kittens show attachment to their mother, he said it remains unclear whether they form a similar attachment to their owners.

“I think cats do emotionally bond with their owners, I just don’t think that at present we have any convincing evidence that this is a form of psychological attachment in the normal psychological sense,” he said.

Dr Lauren Finka from Nottingham Trent University agreed.

“For species that spend a large proportion of their time in proximity to specific humans, it can be very advantageous to form bonds with them,” she said. “However, unlike children and potentially dogs, it is less probable that cats have an innate need to form strong, secure attachments to their caregiver, particularly as adults – hence signs of this are more likely rooted in factors like their personality, early socialisation and how we keep them.”