Is your cat detached? Or is the media messing with us once again…

I hate to report on research before it’s been written up and peer reviewed, but since “the cat has been let out of the bag” on this one via Reddit and several media outlets, I feel I have to comment on what I’m seeing and reading in the headlines (already: "Study: Your cat hates you and "Sorry, your cat hates you").

Veterinarian Daniel Mills (the same person who brought us the “cats hate petting” study) is currently leading a study to examine the relationship between cats and their owners, or as he states at (:30) “Whether cats are making an emotional commitment” to their owners. You can watch the news clip here:

He is using a well-known method called the “Strange Situation”, which was first developed in by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s to measure attachment between parent and child. A mother and child would visit the study site. The basic set up is that a stranger enters the room and the mother leaves when the child is playing or otherwise distracted. The child’s behavior is noted, such as how much time the child spends playing while the parent is gone, their reaction to the stranger, and their reaction to their parent’s leaving and returning.  From this the child is assigned an attachment style (secure, insecure, avoidant, or disorganized).

This methodology has been used to study attachment behavior in dogs (read more here and here) with the results indicating that dogs showed several searching behaviors when the owner was gone (such as scratching at the door, orienting toward the empty chair). They were more likely to play with the stranger in the presence of their owner, suggesting they use the owner as a “secure base” to gain comfort and confidence from. They also greeted their owners enthusiastically upon return. As Mills states in the video at (2:30), it seems that in dogs and children “they see the individual as a source of comfort and safety.”

A more recent study (that you can read thanks to open access publishing here) shows a flaw in the study design, in that order effects may have influenced exploratory behaviors in dogs. Proximity seeking behaviors and greeting behaviors seem to be the best measures for attachment in dogs. The authors of this study note “these (methods) must be adapted to fit the dog-human relationship.” I propose than any study looking at attachment in the human-cat relationship must do the same.

Now let’s look at how this experiment was done with the cats. First, the owner brings the cat into the strange room in a carrier.

WAIT. STOP THE VIDEO!!!!!!!!!!

Many cats have negative associations with cat carriers.
Many cats have negative associations with cat carriers.

This study is ignoring a few very important things about cats. One is that most cats have a bad association with carriers as owners typically only drag a carrier out from the depths of their closet when the cat is going to the vet (note: this bad association can be fixed, but that is a subject for another post!). So, the cats in this study may have not been in the best emotional state due to being stressed from being in a carrier.

Second thing to note, most owners do not interact regularly with their cat outside of the home (i.e. in strange situations), whereas it is a normal part of the dog-owner relationship to be together in strange, new places – hiking, coffee shops, friends’ houses, the car, pet stores, and so on (the same is true of babies). By applying the same methods to a study looking at cats, we are ignoring several key facts about cats – familiarity is incredibly important to them. For a confident cat, this would likely manifest in high levels of exploration in a new place (kind of like what we are seeing in the video). For a shy cat, I would expect to see more hiding behavior (including avoiding the owner). Cats are predators, but they are also prey animals, and in unsure situations, they follow their instincts.

I’m also a little concerned about how some of the cat’s behavior is interpreted in this video. When the owner leaves (at 3:30 in the video), the voice over says that the cat is distracted. Look carefully; the cat is not distracted, she is running away – indicating to me that she is likely nervous and still wary. Furthermore, when the owner returns, the stranger is waving a toy, which could be a major distraction for a predatory animal. This is different than what they did in the dog study, where the stranger (according to the source literature) does not try to engage the dog upon the owner’s return.

When your cat stares into your eyes, is she just thinking "feed me!!"?
When your cat stares into your eyes, is she just thinking "feed me!!"?

Mills concludes that the relationship between a cat and owner “is not a secure attachment style relationship.”  He further states that while people “believe their cats are very affectionate…we’re starting to think the cat sees the owner as a provider of resources rather than a provider of safety,” and that it is “difficult to say whether cats love back.”

Now, I don’t like to accuse people of being inflammatory, but these assertions that cats may not love us back and only see us as a source of food feed into the ongoing mythology that somehow cats have little to offer us as pets, and that they don’t get much from us either. It makes for good media (hype) coverage, but doesn’t actually do much to increase our understanding of cats.

Does it look like this cat hates her owner? Photo by Jacqueline Munera.
Does it look like this cat hates her owner? Photo by Jacqueline Munera.

Many of us with cats would beg to differ with Mills comments whether cats love us. Our cats sleep with us, “help” us with our computer work, follow us from room to room, ask to play and engage in attention seeking behaviors. They develop behavior problems when their emotional needs aren’t met and even experience separation anxiety. These behaviors are not exclusively based around “using” us for warmth or food. While these behaviors do not necessarily mean that cats love us, I do not think you can conclude that they don’t based on Mills’ findings.

I do agree with Mills that cats may not see us as providers of safety or “help” in this type of situation. Unlike dogs, cats also do not seek human help when solving a difficult task. This would suggest some level of self-sufficiency related to their natural history as solitary hunters, and their instincts that may tell them when in danger, hide and hide alone.

Another question is if we are even approaching this relationship between owners and their pets in the correct way. Some research suggests that the pet may actually serve as a secure base for the owner, NOT the other way around , where humans were more confident when they were with or thinking about their relationship with their pet. In this context, we may need to think about the human-pet relationship not as a parent-child relationship, but more as that of a romantic relationship or adult friendship.

Some cats love to be cuddled!
Some cats love to be cuddled!

In addition, I’d like to suggest that only looking at the human-cat relationship in comparison to humans and dogs is a bit tired. It’s time to move on. We know cats are “on the cusp” of domestication; they have not been heavily selected for behaviors related to humans. In fact, these dog “attachment behaviors” could be something we have selected or trained dogs for! Many dogs are given treats when they approach the owners and they may be trained not to jump on strangers. So, I could make an inflammatory statement of my own and suggest that cats cuddle with us because they truly “want” to, not because they have just been trained or bred to do so. But I wouldn’t do such a thing.

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3 thoughts on “Is your cat detached? Or is the media messing with us once again…

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  2. James Smith

    Great article! Behavioural studies can easily be biased by the researcher's preconceived ideas especially when dealing with animals of another species which show affection in different ways, just because a cat doesn't react how you would expect a human or a dog to in a social setting doesn't mean they aren't capable of attachment or love...

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