Cats Form Attachments With Human Caretakers Much Like Dogs And Children

More than half of cats tested exhibited signs of secure attachment with their owner. AnnaGorbenko/Shutterstock

Throw your stereotypes of aloof, solitude-seeking cats aside. A new study suggests that domestic cats bond with their humans in much the same way as dogs and children.

To test the bonding behavior of humans, scientists observe how an infant responds to the return of their caregiver after a brief absence while in a new environment. Secure infants return to relaxed exploration, whereas insecure infants tend to cling to their caregivers or avoid them altogether. This “secure base test” has also been used to study the attachment bonding behaviors of both dogs and primates.

This time around, researchers wanted to know if cats also exhibit similar responses. To do so, researchers observed 70 cats who entered into a new room and spent two minutes in it with their caregiver. They then spent two minutes alone, followed by a two-minute reunion with their special person. Much like humans and dogs, cats with secure attachment styles were less stressed and would explore the room in a healthy way when their owner returned.

This photo shows a cat with insecure-avoidant style attachment. Oregon State University

"In both dogs and cats, attachment to humans may represent an adaptation of the offspring-caretaker bond," said study author Kristyn Vitale, from Oregon State University, in a statement, noting that about 65 percent of cats exhibited secure attachment styles – the same percentage as human infants. "Attachment is a biologically relevant behavior. Our study indicates that when cats live in a state of dependency with a human, that attachment behavior is flexible and the majority of cats use humans as a source of comfort."

Alternatively, insecure cats showed signs of stress by twitching their tails, licking their lips, running, hiding, acting aloof, or sitting in their owners’ lap without moving.  

"There's long been a biased way of thinking that all cats behave this way. But the majority of cats use their owner as a source of security. Your cat is depending on you to feel secure when they are stressed out,” Vitale explained.

The researchers wanted to see if these attachment bonds could be broken. Over the course of six weeks, they conducted socialization training with cats and their owners only to find that there were no noticeable changes; once an attachment style had been established, it stayed stable over time into adulthood.

Vitale says her team next hopes to explore what this means for cats and kittens living in shelters and whether socialization and fostering opportunities might impact their styles of attachment. 

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