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:
- With owner/servant in the room: “What is this strange place? What are we doing here?”
- 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!”
- 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.
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.”
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.