Think Your Cat Misses You? It's Probably Just Pissed Off

It's not him, it's you. JStone/Shutterstock

Strutting around like they own the place, and you, cats have an amusing air of “I don’t give a damn.” Quite the independent pet, especially when compared with our highly excitable but oh so needy canine companions. But why such a difference between these long-domesticated animals? According to new research, cats are unlike dogs in this regard because they don’t attach to their owners as a focus of safety and security.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that cats don’t form close relationships with their owners, even if they do regularly snub your offer of affection and often behave like assholes. But what it seems to suggest is that, despite increasing recognition of their sociability, adult cats are quite autonomous and don’t necessarily lean on others for safety. The study has been published in PLOS ONE.

Cats have just overtaken dogs as the most popular pet in Europe, probably because they are more suited to the lives of busy people and workaholics. They can live in small spaces, don’t need walks and can cope with being left alone. That being said, some cats become stressed and anxious when separated from their owners, which could be interpreted as a sign that these animals can attach to their owners in a similar way that dogs and children bond with their caregivers.

Defined as an “enduring psychological bond that serves to improve an infant’s chances of survival by keeping it close to its mother,” attachment in this context can be assessed in something called the Strange Situation Test. As the name suggests, together with their caregiver and a stranger, individuals are put in an unfamiliar place to evoke feelings of insecurity. The stranger and caregiver then leave and come back and the subject’s response to each disappearing act is observed.

While this was developed for humans, it has been modified for other species, like chimps, and yielded some interesting findings. So scientists from the University of Lincoln decided to come up with their own adapted version suitable for cats, which involved 20 pairs of cats and their owners. Cats were placed in a strange environment either on their own, with their owner or with a stranger, and their behavior was analyzed.

For each scenario, three different attachment variables were assessed: signs of distress, the level of contact the cat wanted, and the amount of passive behavior displayed. They found that while cats tended to become noisier when the owner left them with the stranger, compared with when the stranger departed, they failed to find any further evidence to indicate that the bond between cat and owner was a type of secure attachment.

“This vocalization might simply be a sign of frustration or learned response, since no other signs of attachment were reliably seen,” Daniel Mills, study author and Professor of Veterinary Behavioral Medicine at the University of Lincoln, said in a statement. “In strange situations, attached individuals seek to stay close to their carer, show signs of distress when they are separated and demonstrate pleasure when their attachment figure returns, but these trends weren’t apparent during our research.”

So while cats might be happy to tolerate your baby talk and those ridiculous booties you insist on, they probably won’t come to you for safety when a potential threat arises. 

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