In the perennial debate over dogs versus cats, dogs often win the title of “man’s best friend,” hailed for their sociability, loyalty, and obedience. In contrast, cats have often been portrayed as more transactional in their interactions, seen as aloof, enigmatic, and independent creatures that merely stick around for food. However, recent research suggests that cats are just as deeply bonded to their human companions as dogs or even human infants.
Kristyn Vitale, an animal behavior scientist at Oregon State University and lead author of a new study published in Current Biology, explains that this belief in cats’ attachment had to be tested scientifically to be validated. While research on cat behavior has lagged behind that on dogs, recent studies have started to explore the depth of feline social lives.
In a 2017 study, Vitale and her colleagues discovered that most cats prefer interacting with humans over eating or playing with toys. A 2019 study showed that cats adjust their behavior based on the attention they receive from a person.
Other research has revealed that cats can sense human emotions and moods and even recognize their own names.
However, the formation of emotional bonds between cats and their owners remained a topic of debate among scientists. To address this, Vitale and her team designed a study to explicitly test the hypothesis.
They recruited 79 kitten owners and 38 adult cat owners to participate in a “secure base test,” a common experiment used to measure bonds between dogs, primates, and their caregivers. This test is also used for human infants, based on the idea that infants have an innate bond with their caregivers, leading them to seek proximity.
In the experiment, owners and their cats or kittens entered an unfamiliar room. After two minutes, the owner left the room, leaving the cat or kitten alone, which can be a stressful experience for the animal. Upon the owner’s return just two minutes later, the scientists carefully noted the cat’s reaction.
Approximately two-thirds of the cats and kittens came to greet their owners upon their return, then went back to exploring the room while periodically returning to their owners. This behavior, according to the researchers, indicated that these animals were securely attached to their owners, considering them a source of safety in an unfamiliar setting.
Around 35 percent of the cats and kittens displayed insecure attachment, either avoiding their owners or clinging to them when they returned. This does not suggest a negative relationship with their owners but rather a lack of seeing them as a source of security and stress relief.
These findings resemble those observed in studies of dogs and human children. In humans, 65 percent of infants display secure attachment to their caregivers, as do 58 percent of dogs.
The results imply a similarity in sociality between humans and companion animals, suggesting a shared evolutionary basis for social bonds in various species. Understanding this phenomenon can offer insights into the evolution of sociality in animals, including humans.
After the initial tests, half of the kittens underwent training and socialization sessions, while the other half served as a control group. Following six weeks of playing with other kittens and receiving training, the researchers repeated the secure base test with the trained kittens.
The results remained consistent, indicating that the training did not significantly impact the kittens’ attachment behavior toward their owners. This suggests that once a cat forms a bond, it tends to remain stable over time.
While researchers still don’t fully understand all the factors shaping caretaker relationships in cats, it is likely a complex combination of genetics, personality, and life experiences. Further studies, such as examining cats’ responses to strangers, could provide a more comprehensive understanding of feline bonds and sociability.