Cats, like children and dogs, develop attachments to their caregivers

Summary: Popular belief suggests cats are more independent and less likely to form close attachments with humans. However, a new study casts doubt on this myth. Researchers have found cats display the same main attachment styles to their owners as dogs, and babies to their parents.

Source: Oregon State University

A new Oregon State University study finds that pet cats form attachments with their human owners that are similar to the bonds formed by children and dogs with their caretakers.

It’s the first time that researchers have empirically demonstrated that cats display the same main attachment styles as babies and dogs, said study lead author Kristyn Vitale, a researcher in the Human-Animal Interaction Lab in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

The study published today in the journal Current Biology.

“In both dogs and cats, attachment to humans may represent an adaptation of the offspring-caretaker bond,” Vitale said. “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.”

In their study, the OSU researchers had cats participate in a “secure base test,” similar to a test that has been given to infants and dogs to study their attachment behaviors. During this test, the cat spends two minutes in a new room with their caregiver, followed by a two-minute alone phase, and then a two-minute reunion phase.

Upon the caregiver’s return from the two-minute absence, cats with secure attachment to the person are less stressed and they balance their attention between the person and their surroundings. For example, they continue to explore the room. On the other hand, cats with an insecure attachment show signs of stress such as twitching their tail and licking their lips, and either stay away from the person (avoidance) or cling to them by jumping in their lap and not moving (ambivalence).

The researchers conducted the test on both kittens and adult cats. Behavioral experts watched recordings of the tests and classified the animal’s actions on criteria that have been used to describe attachment patterns in infants and dogs.

Of the 70 kittens that were classifiable, 64.3% were categorized as securely attached and 35.7% were categorized as insecurely attached.

The researchers were then interested in finding out if socialization training would change those percentages. After a six-week training course, there weren’t any significant differences.

“Once an attachment style has been established between the cat and its caregiver, it appears to remain relatively stable over time, even after a training and socialization intervention,” Vitale said.

Cats, like most domesticated animals, retain several juvenile traits into maturity and remain dependent on humans for care, Vitale said. So, the researchers tested 38 cats that were 1 year old or older. The percentages nearly mirrored the kitten population – 65.8% secure and 34.2% insecure.

This shows the researcher and a very cute, black and white cat
A cat displays secure attachment behavior with researcher Kristyn Vitale in the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University. The image is credited to Oregon State University.

It was surprising, Vitale said, to find how closely the proportion of secure and insecure attachments in the kitten and adult cat populations matched the human infant population. In humans, 65% of infants are securely attached to their caregiver.

“Cats that are insecure can be likely to run and hide or seem to act aloof,” Vitale said. “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 earned a doctorate at OSU in 2018 and conducted this research as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.

Co-authors on the study were Monique Udell, assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences and director of the Human-Animal Interaction Lab; and Alexandra Behnke, a veterinary student at OSU.

About this neuroscience research article

Oregon State University
Media Contacts:
Kristyn Vitale – Oregon State University
Image Source:
The image is credited to Oregon State University.

Original Research: Open access
“Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans”. Kristyn R. Vitale, Alexandra C. Behnke, Monique A.R. Udell.
Current Biology doi:10.1016/j.cub.2019.08.036.


Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans

Worldwide, domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) outnumber domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Despite cats’ success in human environments, dog social cognition has received considerably more scientific attention over the last several decades. A key aspect of what has been said to make dogs unique is their proclivity for forming attachment bonds, including secure attachments to humans, which could provide scaffolding for the development of human-like socio-cognitive abilities and contribute to success in human environments. Cats, like dogs, can be found living in social groups or solitarily, depending on early developmental factors, resource distribution, and lifetime experiences such as human interaction. Despite fewer studies, research suggests we may be underestimating cats’ socio-cognitive abilities. Here we report evidence, using behavioral criteria established in the human infant literature, that cats display distinct attachment styles toward human caregivers. Evidence that cats share social traits once attributed to dogs and humans alone would suggest that broader non-canine-specific mechanisms may be needed to explain cross-species attachment and socio-cognitive abilities.

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