When most people think of cats, especially in comparison with dogs, they imagine them as aloof, uncaring pets who view their owners as little more than a convenient source of food. This view is often mirrored in the scientific community, where cats are imagined not as social animals but as solitary creatures. Perhaps as a result, plenty of research has been conducted to determine the social cognition of dogs, but the science surrounding cats in this context is relatively barren. In recognition of this gap in scientific understanding, a team of researchers conducted a study entitled “Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans” which was published in the journal Current Biology. The study found that cats did indeed form bonds with human beings, and viewed their human companions as sources of safety and security, coming as no surprise to cat lovers.
Some prior research into cat behavior has been conducted which shows they share some social characteristics with humans and dogs. For instance, cats love to receive attention and affection from humans, and will even prefer to do so over eating food or playing with toys. Additionally, cats have been shown to be able to understand human emotions, and while they may not always respond when called, they can know their names. However, studies that have tried to determine the nature of the relationship that cats have with people have shown mixed results, so Dr. Vitale and her colleagues wanted to explore the bonds between cats and their owners.
The study involved what’s referred to in psychology as a “secure base test.” During this test, a person entered a room with his or her cat and stayed for two minutes, and then the owner left the room for two minutes, leaving the cat alone in the room, and then returned for another two minutes, during which time the researchers observed the cat’s reaction. As being in an unfamiliar environment can be stressful for cats, the researchers wanted to determine whether the cats saw their owners as reducing this stress, which would indicate a bond between the animal and the person.
Around two-thirds of the cats greeted their owners when they returned to the room, and then went back to exploring the environment, periodically returning to their owners. This suggests that these cats were “securely attached” to their owners, meaning their presence relaxed and comforted the animals. The other third of the cats were “insecurely attached” to their owners, meaning they either avoided them or clung to them, indicating that their owners’ presence did not confer a sense of safety and calm. When the secure base test is performed with children and dogs, the results are similar, as 65% of infants demonstrated secure attachment to their caregivers, while 58% of dogs were securely attached to their owners.
Contrary to popular belief, kittens are able to be trained to perform tricks. The researchers wanted to determine whether cats that were trained had a different relationship with their owners than cats who were not, so after the initial test was conducted they enrolled half of the kittens in a training course, and the other half served as a control. Then they performed the secure base test again, and found that whether or not the kitten was trained had no bearing on how securely they were attached to their owner.
Despite the protests of cat lovers, the myth that cats simply don’t care about human beings has long persisted. Further testing of cat psychology may focus on comparing the relationships of cats with their owners to their relationships with strangers, as socialized cats may simply display attachment to human beings generally. As more research is conducted concerning the social lives of cats, however, we are likely to see how important social bonds are to the animals, although they may initially present as aloof or uncaring.