ARE CATS ATTACHED TO THEIR OWNERS?
Lincoln (UK) University carried out a study into the attachment of cats to their owners. Online media have picked this up and reported it as “cats are not attached to their owners”. Having read the paper, I found that this was a gross over-simplification of the conclusion. The researchers concluded that feline behaviour means the cat-human bond is different from the dog-human bond or the child-parent bond. The term “attachment” referred not to the emotional bond that exists between cats and their owners, but to viewing the owner as a “secure base” for reassurance in a strange situation. What the researchers found was that cats (which individually adapt to being social, rather than having evolved to be a social species) generally rely on themselves in unfamiliar situations.
The Lincoln researchers conceded that "alternative methods need to be developed to characterise the normal psychological features of the cat-owner bond," and concluded that "adult cats are typically quite autonomous, even in their social relationships, and not necessarily dependent on others to provide a sense of security and safety." This is very different from the blunt media statements that cats don’t form attachment to their owners! They form social attachments, but not “secure base” attachments i.e. they don’t need a human security blanket in an unfamiliar situation.
WHAT IS ”SECURE ATTACHMENT “?
The study title is Domestic Cats (Felis sylvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners . The objective was to see whether bond between a cat and its caregiver (owner) is a secure attachment i.e. in an unfamiliar situation, does a cat seek safety, security and reassurance from its owner? Does it feel safer and more confident when the owner is present? Does it show signs of separation anxiety when the owner leaves the room? How much does a cat rely on its owner for emotioal wellbeing as opposed to physical necessities? This is a specific type of attachment - security-blanket attachment - rather than the familiar social bond (or demonstration of affection) between a cat and its owner.
As a species, domestic cats have a flexible lifestyle that is biased towards being solitary, but can adapt to living in social groups. As such, sociality is not a species trait, but an individual trait: some cats are more social than others. As a species, cats have not evolved the complex social behaviours seen in dogs or humans. In an unfamiliar situation, a cat reverts to its innate behaviour of relying on itself and not on others. This was noted by the researchers, but the media reporting this study omitted this important proviso on the study.
THE STUDY METHOD
20 domestic cats (4 male, 16 female) were involved. All 4 males were neutered. Only 1 female cat was spayed. Female cats in oestrus were not included in the study. 19 of the cats had regular access to the outside. The cats came from a variety of lifestyles: some had moved home with the owner and 2 were pedigree shorthairs. Testing took place in “plain rooms.” These test rooms were unfamiliar to the cats and contained the owner ("caretaker") and a stranger.
As well as general behaviour (marking, approaching etc), during the test the following episodes were observed: (a) The owner leaves the room for a short period of time and then returns. The cat’s response to the reunion is noted, (b) the stranger leaves the room for a short period of time and then returns and t The cat’s response is noted. The test rooms and stranger were cleaned in between tests to remove the odours of unfamiliar cats as this would alter the behaviour of cats in subsequent tests. The” episodes” (scenarios) were carried out in different orders in case test order affected the cats’ behaviour.
It was already known that a dog or child that looks for safety and security in the human caretaker will:
(a) try to maintain proximity and contact with their caretaker,
(b-1) show signs of pleasure when returned to their caretaker after a short period of separation,
(b-2) show distress when separated,
(c) regard its human caretaker as a safe haven to which he/she returns when frightened and/or
(d) regard its caretaker as a “secure-base” from which it can move away and engage in other activities.
The researchers observed the following: In an unusual and unfamiliar setting containing a stranger and the owner, the cats did not generally go to the owner for reassurance or safety. This could be interpreted as lack of attachment, but the researchers analysed the behaviour in terms of cat behaviour.
Personal note: Many owners have witnessed (b-1) when collecting their cat from a vet surgery or boarding cattery or recovering it after it got lost. Cats have also required medication and behavioural therapy because of separation anxiety. There is no doubt that a bond exists between cat and owner, but it appears impossible to reproduce this in the ASST environment.
The researchers analysed the results and factored in the underlying cat behaviour. This is a synopsis of what they found, most of which was ignored by the media picking up the report! Firstly, the test room is a stressful setting for a cat so it is likely to revert to its innate solitary behaviour, rather than its learned (in kittenhood) social behaviour. Rather than going to the owner for reassurance/safety, it instinctively hides or cautiously investigates. This is already well known to owners and cat behaviour experts - when strangers enter the home, a pet cat will often hide for safety. Some will only emerge for reassurance when the stranger has gone.
Several test categories were combined or adapted so as to be more suitable for cat behaviour: ‘exploration/locomotion,’ ‘approaching/orientation to a person,’ and ‘proximity to owner/stranger.’
If the owner is a preferred social companion, compared to the stranger, the researchers expected the cat to seeking/maintain proximity/contact with the owner rather than with the stranger.
If the owner acts as a secure base, the researchers predicted that there should be more passive behaviour, exploration and social play in the presence of the owner compared to the presence of the stranger.
The cats should be more distressed by the owner’s absence than the stranger’s absence, so researchers predicted that cats would vocalise more when separated from the owner compared to the stranger, and show greater vigilance and orientation to the door (looking expectantly at the door) when the owner is absent compared to the when the stranger is absent.
No single measure would be sufficient to conclude that the relationship between the cat and its owner is a secure attachment. The evidence from all of these tests would need to be considered overall. Cats that hid during the entire test were excluded from analytical consideration.
Two cats (1 male neutered, 6 years old, 1 female neutered 2 years old) hid during the entire test and this data was not included because they did not vary their behaviour. No cats were removed due to welfare concerns during the test i.e. cats were not distressed to the point of impacting their wellbeing. This left data from 18 cats. Where there was inconsistency in the cats’ behaviour it made the data unreliable. Inconsistent behaviours cannot be used to reliably assess supposedly stable traits such as attachment.
Some of the data relating to ‘proximate owner/stranger,’ ‘physical contact owner/stranger,’ ‘approaching/orientation to the door’ and 'vigilance' was considered unsuitable for use in assessing attachment because the behaviour was affected by the order in which the tests (e.g. which person left the room) were conducted. Cats marked the stranger as well as marking the owner; this affected the test because the cat’s scent made the stranger more familiar and changed the cat’s behaviour later on in the test. In general, though, cats consistently marked the owner more than they marked the stranger. Comparisons of ‘vigilance’ behaviour in the sole presence of the owner versus stranger to assess attachment were not justifiable. There was insufficient data to allow statistical analysis of 'contact by the cat with the absent person’s chair.'
‘Exploration/locomotion’ and ‘social play’ (with the owner or stranger) were found suitable in assessing attachment. No significant differences were found in the duration of time cats spent expressing exploration/locomotion in the presence of the owner compared to the stranger. Likewise there were no significant differences in the duration of time cats spent playing with their owner compared to playing with the stranger. In addition there was no significant difference in the amount cats played with the stranger when the owner was present and when the owner was absent. Vocalisation' when either the owner or the stranger left the room was not significantly different. However, cat vocalisations are more subtle than dog vocalisations and any researcher unfamiliar with cats may not interpret the vocalisation correctly.
Overall, the response of the cats indicated that the test environment was generally adequate for invoking the typical scenario desired in the ASST for demonstration of a secure base effect. However the specific results indicate that many aspects of the behaviour of cats in this test are not consistent with the characteristics of attachment, for two main reasons. Firstly, some cat behaviours are too unreliable to be used evaluating attachment. Even where behaviour is reliable, the researchers’ predictions were not met. Although the level of vocalisation met predictions, the researchers could not be certain it indicated distress so it wasn’t sufficient to imply secure attachment.
The researchers compared their results to other studies and accepted the possibility that a different cat-owner lifestyle or social bond affect results, but they though this unlikely. They also accepted that cats may have social preferences, formed social attachment in certain circumstances and formed affectionate social relationships/bonds with their owners. They called this the “broader sense use of the term ‘attachment’” – this is an important fact missed by media reports. The researchers only tested “secure attachment” (what I call “security blanket” behaviour). They also conceded that even a modified ASST was inappropriate for measuring secure attachment because of the variable behaviour of the cats, the change in the cats’ behaviour over a period of time and the impact of test order (the order in which the owner or the stranger left and returned). They suggested that this had implications when using behavioural assessments to evaluate cats for rehoming.
Data from proximity/contact seeking was considered too unreliable to be used in evaluation. Marking (body rubbing) is a specific behaviour that requires proximity to the person marked, but it was affected by test order and duration. Early on , cats marked the stranger more often than the owner, but as the test progressed there was no preference and finally there was a preference for rubbing against the owner. This suggests that marking preference was not indicative of attachment towards an individual, but it established a group scent telling the cat that the marked individual was not a threat. It reduced the cat’s anxiety towards a stranger by making them smell more familiar. During the test, as the stranger is becoming increasingly familiar to the cat, there is less marking of the stranger following separation from either the owner or the stranger. This means that the evidence of “proximity maintenance/ contact seeking” as a sign of secure attachment is weak, because the cat’s motive for proximity is scent-mixing, not physical reassurance.
The “secure-base” effect is considered the primary factor in identifying an attachment. Unlike dogs, the cats didn’t use their owners as a secure-base i.e. they didn’t make forays away from the owner and then return back to the owner for physical reassurance (and repeat this sequence). As a personal note, this is very different in different cats. One of my own cats explored my household for the first time only if I crawled on all fours and she could dart under my belly in between very short forays – this behaviour can be seen in kittens towards their mother, but is less common when adult cats interact with their humans.
There was no significant difference in the amount of exploration/locomotion in the presence of the owner versus stranger, nor the amount of play with the owner versus stranger. The absence of the owner did not significantly reduce the time spent playing with the stranger as would be expected if the owner was considered a “secure-base”. In cats, unlike dogs and humans, play is more often associated with solitary predatory type activities, and has less social relevance; this referred to cat-human interaction, not cat-cat play.
Passive behaviours that indicate relaxation in dogs or children can indicate anxiety, not comfort, in cats. The cats were more inactive in the presence of the stranger . The separation tests demonstrated that the presence of the owner had only a small effect on the perceived safety of the environment, and this was not strong enough to affect the behaviour of the cat when it first entered the strange environment. It may have a small effect on behaviour once the cat has become accustomed to the environment. The strangeness of the environment might also inhibit the cat’s behaviour, therefore, the behaviour changes as the environment becomes more familiar.
The data relating to potential stress when separated are consistent with a preference for interaction with the owner over the stranger, but not with secure attachment. Standing by the door is a particularly robust measure of separation distress in dogs, but was found to be inconsistent in cats, as was vigilance behaviour. This suggests either that cats do not show distress in this way, or that the cats are not particularly distressed by the departure of the owner. The cats used vocalisation to express frustration at the owner’s departure rather than the owner providing comfort in the strange environment. This meant vocalisation couldn’t be used to infer that the cat saw its owner as a secure base in the strange environment.
SUITABILITY OF THE AINSWORTH STRANGE SITUATION TEST
The researchers noted that the ASST is suitable for dogs because it reproduces situations that they could encounter in their everyday live. In contrast most cats are unlikely to encounter these situations on a regular basis. This makes it an artificial situation that can impact negatively on the validity of the data obtained. The researchers, however, argued that the test set-up actually increased the validity of data.
Most of the cats were home based as is common in the UK and so the novel environment was suitably intimidating to trigger secure attachment related behaviours if they existed. Those cats had little experience of strange situations outside the home (e.g. weekly vet visits). The indoor-outdoor cats in the study experienced more environmental novelty which could result in a false negative response. Two cats were eliminated from the analysis because they consistently hid for the whole test duration – indicative of higher stress levels that were not reduced by the presence of the owner.
The researchers conceded that the behaviours chosen to assess attachment might not be biologically relevant to the cat’s evolved nature as a largely independent, solitary hunter. The cat’s nature suggests its relationship with the owner is not characterised by the safety and security features of the classical attachment bond seen in dog or children. The passive behaviour that indicates secure attachment in dog indicates anxiety in cats. The researchers admitted that there is good evidence that some cats can show separation related problems, but they suggested this was due to frustration rather than secure attachment (many behaviourists suggest the cat gets bored and needs other stimulation when the owner is away).
In the familiarity of their own homes, some cats demonstrate a close social relationship with their owners. Almost from the moment I get indoors, to the moment I go to bed, Sweep is attached to me like Velcro. If he can’t sit on me, he sits with me (proximity behaviour). This is a high frequency of seeking owner interaction and most interactions are long duration (punctuated only by food or toilet breaks!). Mr Minns was equally attached: when not in proximity with me but knowing I was in another room, he vocalised until I responded, after which he settled. These are social behaviours, but not “secure attachments” (in the scientific sense) because they do not use me as a security blanket. Some cats choose to hang out with people other than their prime caregiver, motivated by interaction not food.
While many cats greet their owners when the owner returns home, they do so in a familiar environment. An unfamiliar environment can inhibit this behaviour. Some cats are less inhibited. When Thenie went missing she had been handed in to the vet. When I went to collect her after 18 hours of separation, she ecstatically jumped onto my shoulders and nuzzled me continuously as soon as the cage was opened. I think it's safe to interpret that as a cat that is pleased to see its owner and anticipates returning to more familiar surroundings! Perhaps it would be better to use CCTV in a familiar environment in order to gauge a cat's true responses.
Feline sociality is likely to exist on a continuum, varying between individuals, but perhaps skewed towards independency. Compared to dogs, cats have been domesticated for a relatively short time and have not been selectively bred to live in close contact with people. Their natural social system is not highly dependent on close social bonds. Compared to dogs, cats typically interact less frequently and for shorter duration with their humans. Despite this, some cats can form very strong attachments, but this did not seem to be the norm. Cats also showed a preference for their owner over an unfamiliar individual, but the researchers did not know it this was the result of conditioning (owner provides food, grooming etc) or an intrinsic psychological tendency to bond.
The cats studied did not appear to attach to their owners as a focus of safety and security in the same way that dogs do or children do towards their parents. Personally I’d summarise it this way: unlike dogs, cats do not require their human to be a security blanket!
Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners. Alice Potter &, Daniel Simon Mills. Published September 2, 2015. Public Library of Science.