Cats and dogs are the most common pets, but there is a decisive difference between the two species of small carnivores: Dogs are often praised for forming deep social bonds with their human owners, while cats are not.
One of the most famous examples of this is the story of Hachiko, a Japanese Akita dog. Every day, Hachiko would meet his owner Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor at the university in Tokio, at the train station after his commute home. Even after his owner died at work, Hachiko would wait at the train station each day for nine more years until he died himself.
Similar stories have not been told about cats—and in general, most people assume that cats are more independent from their owners than dogs. But could it be that this common assumption is wrong and that cats do indeed have deep social bonds with their owners, comparable to dogs?
A research team from the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University designed a study to find out (Vitale et al., 2019). The researchers used a cat-compatible version of the so-called strange situation test, a commonly used test to assess the bonds between mothers and their children. The test is fairly easy: First, cats spend two minutes in a new room together with their owner. Then, the owner leaves the room and the cat spends two minutes alone in the new room. After that, the owner comes back to the room and the researchers assess the cats’ behavior based on established protocol for this test. Based on what has been observed in humans and dogs, the experts then classified the cats into different attachment styles.
Cats showed three different main attachment styles: Cats with secure attachment showed reduced stress when the owner came back and showed a balanced distribution between seeking contact with the owner and exploring the room. Cat with insecure-ambivalent attachment still showed signs of stress when the owner returned and excessively sought out their owners’ proximity. Cat with insecure-avoidant attachment also continued to show stress after the owner returned, but also avoided the owner.
The interesting question was: How many cats showed each attachment style?
The result was quite surprising: About two-thirds of cats (64.3 percent) showed a secure attachment to their owner, while only about one-third (35.7 percent) showed one of the forms of insecure attachment. This, in contrast to the common opinion that cats are more independent than dogs, suggests that the majority of cats show strong and secure social bonds with their owners.
The researchers then investigated whether social training could change the attachment style of the cats, by conducting a 6-week training and socialization intervention with a group of 39 kittens. Interestingly, the program did not have much effect on the cats’ attachment style, indicating that once the social bond between a cat and its owner is formed, it remains relatively stable over time.
Moreover, the researchers also tested the cats one year later to test how stable the social bonds between cat and owner were over time. The distribution of attachment style pretty much stayed the same (65.8 percent showed secure attachment, while 34.2 percent showed insecure attachment).
Taken together, the researchers concluded that cats show similar behaviors as humans and dogs in the strange situation test: They feel stress if the owner leaves the room, and they seek proximity to the owner when he or she returns. Moreover, the distributions of cats with secure and insecure attachment to their owner was very similar to that of human children (65 percent show secure attachment and 35 percent show insecure attachment) and dogs (58 percent show secure attachment and 42 percent show insecure attachment).
Taken together, the study clearly suggests that cats have the same ability to form deep social bonds with their owners that dogs do—even if they appear to be more independent than their canine counterparts.
Vitale KR, Behnke AC, Udell MAR. (2019). Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans. Curr Biol, 9, R864-R865.