Study: Don’t believe those cat memes

2019 -9-26 iStock-168282777 cats bonding - blog.jpg

Most cat memes are predicated on the idea that cats are aloof, impersonal, and, frequently, jerks.

But new research out of Oregon State University (OSU) suggests that we’ve underestimated the depth of the bonds cats can form with their owners—in fact, the researchers found that the majority of cats are securely attached to their owners.

The study shows that, much like dogs, pet cats form secure and insecure bonds with their human caretakers. 

In a secure attachment, a dog in a strange environment will, when reunited with his caretaker, relax and continue to explore. But if the dog has an insecure attachment, he’ll continue exhibiting stress behavior even after reuniting with his caretaker, either clinging excessively to them or avoiding them as much as possible.

The OSU researchers conducted a test of these two attachment types on 79 kittens and 38 adult cats.

First, the kitten or cat and their human caregiver were placed together in a room, with the human sitting in a marked circle. If the cat entered the circle, the human could interact with it. After two minutes, the human left, leaving the cat alone. After another two minutes, the human returned to the room and sat in the circle again.

The entire test was filmed, and the researchers analyzed the video to classify the cats’ attachment type.

Of the kittens, 9 couldn’t be classified, but of the remaining group, 64.3% were categorized as securely attached and 35.7% as insecurely attached. The adult cats showed similar rates, with 65.8% demonstrating secure attachment and 34.2 % being insecure.

Interestingly, those secure attachment rates—64.3% and 65.8%—are pretty close to the 65% secure attachment rate seen in human infants, and slightly higher than those found in a test of 59 companion dogs published in 2018; those dogs were 61% secure and 39% insecure.

NEWStat reached out to lead author Krystin R. Vitale, PhD, a researcher in the Human-Animal Interaction Lab in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, to find out more.

NEWStat: Why do you think more studies like this haven’t been done on cats?

Krystyn Vitale: I think there’s this idea that cats are not especially social animals, so why should we study their social behavior? However, as we saw in our previous studies, cats display a range of social behavior and often actually prefer social interaction with people over other rewards. So, work in this area indicates we may be underestimating the importance of social interaction for cats. 

NEWStat: Are we too quick to say dogs are like this and cats are like that?

KV: Yes, for sure! Cats and dogs both display flexible social behavior. Some are less social and some are more social. It very much has to do with the personality of the cat or dog themselves and it’s counterproductive to say all cats or dogs are one way. 

NEWStat: Do cats bond with humans differently than dogs do?

KV: In our study, we found that cats and dogs display the same attachment behaviors toward their owners. This indicates there are many similarities between how the two species bond to humans. However, they’re still different species and they may show affection in different ways. For example, a dog may play fetch with their owner while a cat may rub on their owner. 

NEWStat: Do your findings have any bearing on the way veterinary professionals might treat their feline patients? And if so, what should their takeaway be?

KV: Yes, our findings that cats display attachment toward their owners indicates cats may also be at risk for attachment-related disorders. Veterinary professionals may want to consider that cats may be able to form separation anxiety or other disorders related to separation from their owner and that cat-human attachment is a vital part of the cat’s welfare. 

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