Study: Cats Really Do View Us As Parents

In a discovery that won’t surprise most feline servants, scientists have concluded cats really do get attached to us even if they have a funny way of not showing it.

The internet is abuzz this week with news of a study that indicates a cat’s bond with his human is much like a child’s bond with a parent.

The research, conducted by a team at Oregon State University, sought to gauge how attached cats are to their owners by putting them in a strange situation and seeing how they react with their humans present and without.

In the study a cat is led into a strange room accompanied by his or her human. After two minutes the human exits and the cat is left alone in the unfamiliar room. Another two minutes later, the cat’s servant returns.

It’s the way the cat acts when its human is away — and how it adjusts when the owner returns — that interests researchers. And sure enough, domestic feline behavior followed a familiar pattern:

  1. With owner/servant in the room: “What is this strange place? What are we doing here?”
  2. Human exits: “Oh no! Don’t leave me in here! I don’t know what this place is! Come back! Hey, come back here! This place looks, smells and feels funny. I’m scared!”
  3. Human returns: “Ah! Okay, much better. I’m just gonna rub up against you so I feel better. You know, this room isn’t so bad after all, is it? You look pretty calm. That means I should be calm, right?”

Although it might seem strange that scientists can learn so much from such a simple experiment, the result is important because the way cats react is precisely the way small kids and dogs react to strange situations.

Cat Hugs His Human
“I love you, furless human, and I’m not just saying that ’cause you feed me!”

It’s all about what psychologists call secure attachment: When a child is bonded with her parent, the mere presence of that parent lends calm and comfort in a strange situation.

Without mom or dad present, the kid is unsure, cautious and maybe even frightened. But with mom or dad in the room, the child feels comfortable and safe enough to go exploring and isn’t intimidated by the new environment. Psychologists call it a “secure base test” because it means kids use their parents as a safe “base” from which to explore.

Two decades ago, researchers broke new ground when experiments showed dogs behave the same way, drawing comfort and feeling more secure with their owners nearby.

“Like dogs, cats display social flexibility in regard to their attachments with humans,” study author Kristyn Vitale said. “The majority of cats are securely attached to their owner and use them as a source of security in a novel environment.”

Another Cat Enjoying A Hug
Must be nice to have a cat who enjoys hugs!

It took another 20 years for scientists to try the same experiment with cats, mostly because felines have a reputation — not undeserved — of being very difficult to work with.

That is, cats don’t always feel like playing nice and participating in a study because, well, they’re cats.

This latest study isn’t the first time researchers have tried to gauge feline attachment to their humans, but it’s the most expansive study of the phenomenon to date: The Oregon State University team conducted the test with some 80 kittens younger than eight months, then repeated the same experiment with adult cats.

The idea was to determine if cats grow out of their emotional attachment. The results suggest they don’t, which lends credence to the theory that domestic cats under the care of humans are, in some respects, kittens for life.

“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 that are insecure can be likely to run and hide or seem to act aloof. 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.”

For those of us currently employed as cat servants, that last bit is important: Cats most definitely do pick up on our moods even when it seems like they don’t.

To read more, check out a 2015 study by Italian scientists that found cats look to their owners for emotional cues about how to respond to new situations, and a 2017 by the same Oregon State University team that found cats value human interaction just as much as they value food.

Buddy Angry
“Buddy doesn’t do hugs, okay? Buddy speaks in the third person, Buddy meows insistently for dinner, but Buddy does not do hugs. Deal with it, human.”

17 thoughts on “Study: Cats Really Do View Us As Parents”

  1. When I go outside to do my yard work I can hear my cat crying and meowing for me. It’s her where are you cry and actually sounds so pitiful as she goes room to room crying for me. She also has some child like behavior at times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I always said this about our cats: they’re like babies! They want us to take care of them and get upset when we leave. It took forever for this study to happen because non-cat owners would say cats just don’t care. But they do! And cat parents have always known this. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And also the perception that it was impossible to get cats to cooperate for a study. But I think people realized that you have to design studies for cats, and if you do it right, you’ll get results. Now there are two labs — the one at Oregon State and another at Tokyo University — regularly producing new studies about cats, and that’s a welcome development.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I adopted a Siberian (didn’t known he was at the time ..another story..another day) Siberian’s are known to be very cuddly and great therapy cats. Merlin had been in shelters his whole little life he was 11/2 yes old when I got him. 7 shelters and he had no takers! He had been “returned” a few times though. They told me this was his last stop on the no- kill shelter route!! Well that would not do!! We took him no questions!! IT TOOK 6 YEARS UNTILL MERLIN EVEN CLIMBED ONTO A LAP …we learned a lot through our patience..he had been hit with hairbrushes…had lost his mother and siblings, was therefore not socialized, but when I let him have temper tantrum and scratch me till blood pooled down my arm I DIDN’T RESPOND WITH ANGER …I JUST TOLD HIM SOFLY I KNEW HOW FRIGHTENED AND SAD HE WAS….IT ALL STARTED TO CHANGE..then he soon got sick and clung to me like a kitten ….he is 11 now and he has never bit or scratched me EVER!! I HAVE TO GIVE HIM ALL KINDS OF MEDICATIONS BUT NOPE NO PROBLEMS..he still isn’t big on cuddling but every couple of days he looks at me and ask for a hug it only lasts for a minute but it’s what he needs…and he climbs onto daddy’s lap now and again. The LOVELY SIDE IS HE IS ALWAYS IN THE ROOM WITH US AND TALKS IN HIS SLEEP….PLOPS DOWN BELLY EXPOSED FOR RASPBERRY’S and TICKLES….HE IS A CONTENT AND HAPPY CAT WHO IS ENJOYING HIS SECOND OR FIST KITTENHOOD…..I THINK BUDDY CAN TOO!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Meg: Merlin sounds like a very special cat, and he’s lucky to have found people who love him and care for him. It sounds like the patience you showed is really paying off. I like the name too, especially for a Siberian.

      I joke a bit about Buddy, and he is not the kind of cat who likes to be held, but he’s affectionate in his own ways. Last night he slept in my lap while I watched a movie, and he’ll often approach me while purring quietly and rub his head against me, which is the classic feline scent swap for people or cats they consider family.

      I try to keep in mind all cats are individuals just like humans are, and not all of them like the same things. Best of luck to you and Merlin!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Cats love to share their hunting success with their members and owners. So, if you ever find an unwanted gift on your doorstep, do not fret. Your cat just basically wants to thank you for taking care of him or her.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s