The perception that cats are cold and indifferent to their owners may be unfair, according to a recent study from Oregon University.
Researchers used the same methods that look for the emotional connections babies and dogs have to their parents and owners. They collected some interesting observations.
Seventy-three kittens and the people looking after them took part in an exercise to see if the kittens felt safe and calm around their owners. Researchers observed what happened when they were left alone in an unfamiliar room and then reunited with their owners.
They found 64% of the kittens showed signs of distress when their owners left them alone in an unfamiliar room and became calmer when they returned.
When they were back in the room the kittens spent an equal amount of time exploring it and staying with their owners. The researchers say this showed the kittens trusted their owners and felt safe in their presence. In human psychology, this is known as 'secure attachment'.
This is the bond many owners say they have with their dogs. Cats tend to be portrayed as aloof or detached from their pet parents, who some say they only love because they feed them. But the research suggests this may be an unfair representation.
Thirty-four percent of the kittens also felt distressed when alone but did not relax when their owners returned. Most of these kittens cuddled with their owners when they returned and did not explore the room.
The rest of the kittens who took part seemed confused and unsure of what to do.
The behaviour of this 34% of kittens showed sign that the kittens were afraid their owner might leave again and not return, or what scientists call 'insecure attachment'.
Researchers say the observe the same behaviour in children and dogs when they study their emotional bonds to parents and owners, suggesting that cats do bond with their owners, and not just for the food or shelter they provide.
Do cats need us?
Not everybody agrees that the study proves that cats need us for companionship but even scientists who don’t acknowledge the possibility that cats can form emotional bonds with their owners.
“For species that spend a large proportion of their time in proximity to specific humans, it can be very advantageous to form bonds with them,” Dr Lauren Finka from Nottingham Trent University told The Guardian newspaper. It is just not clear whether they have “an innate need to form strong, secure attachments to their caregiver” the way that children and dogs do, or whether this is the result of early socialisation with their humans, she says.
The researchers at Oregon University also tried to train the kittens that remained distressed when their owners returned to the room. They took part in a 6-week programme designed to help them feel safer but their behaviour remained the same.
The team suggests this shows the type of bonds cats form with their owners remains stable throughout their lives and is influenced by innate traits rather than the environment they live in or contact with other pets or humans.
Whatever people believe cats are cold-hearted free spirits or a member of the family, almost every owner would say their cat has its way of showing affection. We've looked at some of the most common ways cats show they love us.
How cats show affection to their owners
- Slowly blinking
- Showing their belly
- Cheek rub
All of the above were listed as signs of affection by cat blogger Ibrahim Raidhan in a guest post for Psychology Today.
Perhaps we can add meowing to that. According to a 2002 study published in the Cornell Chronicle, adult cats have different meows to help them communicate with humans.
Scientists may not agree on whether cats’ need for human company is learned or something they are born with but they don't deny cats show signs of emotional attachment. So it might be time to reassess whether cats are emotional equals to dogs.