Sorry, science says cats simply can’t love you the way dogs can.

By Seriously Science | October 1, 2015 6:00 am
Image: Flickr/Alan Huett

Image: Flickr/Alan Huett

We’re pretty sure this post is going to be hated by all the feline fanciers out there, but this study is just too good not to share. Here, researchers applied a test developed for use with children to investigate the relationships between cats and their humans. The SST can determine whether children, and apparently animals, view their caregivers as a source of safety in a threatening environment. It turns out that using this metric, dogs are “securely attached” to their owners, but cats are “not necessarily dependent on others to provide a sense of security and safety.” But that doesn’t mean their owners aren’t dependent on their cats for warm fuzzies in a crazy world!

Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners.

“The Ainsworth Strange Situation Test (SST) has been widely used to demonstrate that the bond between both children and dogs to their primary carer typically meets the requirements of a secure attachment (i.e. the carer being perceived as a focus of safety and security in otherwise threatening environments), and has been adapted for cats with a similar claim made. However methodological problems in this latter research make the claim that the cat-owner bond is typically a secure attachment, operationally definable by its behaviour in the SST, questionable. We therefore developed an adapted version of the SST with the necessary methodological controls which include a full counterbalance of the procedure. A cross-over design experiment with 20 cat-owner pairs (10 each undertaking one of the two versions of the SST first) and continuous focal sampling was used to record the duration of a range of behavioural states expressed by the cats that might be useful for assessing secure attachment. Since data were not normally distributed, non-parametric analyses were used on those behaviours shown to be reliable across the two versions of the test (which excluded much cat behaviour). Although cats vocalised more when the owner rather the stranger left the cat with the other individual, there was no other evidence consistent with the interpretation of the bond between a cat and its owner meeting the requirements of a secure attachment. These results are consistent with the view 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. It is concluded that alternative methods need to be developed to characterise the normal psychological features of the cat-owner bond.”

Related content:
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Contrary to what your cats would have you believe, they do recognize your voice.

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  • polistra24

    “alternative methods need to be developed to characterise” = Cat owners are deluding themselves.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    You are either a god to your dog or a slave to it. Cats are relationships of convenience, plus self-cleaning and no walking for waste. Cats are terrifically good at removing everything from flies to rabbits. I personally prefer partners to sycophants – go cats.

    • NE treehugger

      I’ve had dogs, currently a Border Collie mix, and agree that I am part god, part slave, depending on the moment–we communicate about it occasionally since she is intelligent enough to have asked why I think I have to be so bossy (god), and I do try to make her life relatively satisfying (slave).
      I have in the past several years also become a caretaker of a friend’s 23 year old cat–I have to say that an elderly cat is not so convenient. She is some kind of long-haired mix but is not self-cleaning anymore; she hates brushing but has become frail enough that I can groom her just a bit before she gets really mad at me, then I respect her limits. However, I now have to get her occasional haircuts so she doesn’t end up severely matted.
      As much trouble as she is in old age, she’s been “sweetened” by being treated better than she was under previous owners. I agree that it is not the same kind of love as with a dog. The cat wants certain things from me and only wants attention on her terms –aging and frailty are probably the things that make her less independent.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        End of life is a terrible, expensive grind. Grant me the option of 10 mg etorphine IV bolus on my own terms (and without acepromazine, doi:10.1111/j.1467-2995.2011.00641.x). Death with dignity.

        • NE treehugger

          Well that is one of the favors we can do for our pets, freeing them from suffering in illness/old age–though I think people have a difficult time letting go and often keep them going when their animals are having nothing but difficulty and pain.
          The 23 yr old cat, though frail, does not seem to be suffering except for tolerating my attempts at brushing (she comes back for the follow-up treat) –and she would be suffering from terrible matting if I wasn’t taking care of it. Yes, that is the expensive part (but $70 for a cat groomer a few times a year is not that much). When she cannot function in other ways and/or has an expensive illness (at her age) I will do her the favor as I’ve had to do with two dogs.
          I definitely agree that humans should be able to make this choice for themselves as well–a friend has told his daughter that when he gets to the point, he wants an OD of heroin.

      • dan becker

        Quelle dommage.

    • moderatelymoderate

      Cats kill many birds etc & should not be allowed to roam freely.

    • John Smith

      Haha wow you are really something. I am trying hard to see a tiny fraction of the stupidity you are seeing but I’m failing. You clearly have no clue… Cats and dogs can’t be compared anymore than a child and a cat. Don’t get me wrong cats may be the perfect pet but they are nothing like dogs so don’t even compare like you can choose between the two… It would be like saying ” I’m not going to have kids just cats” and expecting people to except that as normal. My dogs have saved my life move than once, and I can honestly say that I would put my life on the line for them…. My cats meows when she wants food… Ya a little different.

  • rejean levesque

    Do you know why the dog is man’s best friend? (…) Because the cats didn’t want to.(Pierre Foglia)

  • AG

    Cats achieve true self-actualization.
    Dependency is sign of poverty or low-class.

    • UncleBob

      Aaargh !!

  • darryl

    A dog will give anyone affection. With a cat, you must earn it.

    -d

    • dkelban

      With a cat, nothing earns it. I used to love my cat, but it’s nickname was “the bookend that breathes”

      • dan becker

        This makes me wonder how you were with your cat. How did you show “love” to your cat?

        • dkelban

          Feeding, petting, scratching ears, playing with toys, and letting the cat alone when it wanted that. It also liked chasing a laser pointer dot. It was an affectionate kitten, but most cats are like perpetual teenagers once the mature: give me food and the car keys, now leave me alone, lol.

          • dan becker

            I guess I’ve had a different experience with cats. If I am on the sidewalk and the neighbor cat sees me, I kneel down and call to it and it always comes over and plays. I say a lot to it, also. Of course, it’s the same with dogs.

          • dkelban

            The issue is that cats are much more variable in how they take to people. I adopted a stray that was much more affectionate than my own cat: you never know what you are going to get, whereas dogs-unless abused by someone-are uniformly affectionate.

    • Todd Jenkins

      You can’t reason with most of the human animal. That’s why civilization uses herding tactics on them and they are oblivious.

  • Klopfer

    This is news to my cat. I will tell her to behave more cat-like and not seek my protection the next time someone uses the vacuum cleaner.

  • john rittel

    This is an apples to oranges comparison. They are correct in that alternative methods of analysis need to be developed. Cats and dogs do not assimilate information in the same format and dogs are easier to anthropomorphize since they form social organized “packs” where cats are independent.

    • Jon Pappas

      Ferral cats in cities often live in groups of 15-25. Somewhat like a pride of lions.

  • Jon Pappas

    So, if understand this article, these folks took a test specifically designed for dogs, and tried to change it for an entirely different animal: cats. And then concluded that cats don’t act like dogs. Oh, yes, also that the SST doesn’t apply to cats. Since IT WAS DESIGNED FOR DOGS. Brilliant.

    PS: I’ve had both dogs & cats for the last 30 years, and cats are just as affectionate as dogs, but in their own way. That will be $1.5M for this landmark study.

    • UncleBob

      Oh my … no you didnt understand

      • Jon Pappas

        I understand more than these researchers do. That will be another $50K to post this note, by the way.

        • UncleBob

          Quote: “….researchers applied a test developed for use with children…”
          The Strange Situation Test (SST) is a procedure devised by Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s to observe attachment relationships between a caregiver and child. It applies to children between the age of nine and 18 months (Ref: Wiki)
          See my response to JimP – and this is why my example of a cat in a tree (in danger) is relevent.
          How much do I get ??

          • Jon Pappas

            A lot, I think. I’m sure you are a co-discover of the fact that dogs & cats have differences in addition to knowing about the SST. Whoever paid these people in the first place must have money to burn. I wonder if they know that cats & dogs have different sounding vocalizations? Seems like a study is in order here. Perhaps dogs mew, and cats bark; we’ll have to construct an audio system & acoustic test to determine that.

          • UncleBob

            Sounds like a great idea Jon and worthy of a Government grant for us both to conduct a long-term study. May I suggest that the Dogs and Cats of exotic places would be the best to conduct the study upon. Places such as Thailand and Hawaii and Fiji and Tahiti – and obviously to ensure an acceptably diverse sample we would have to test all their distinct breeds. I reckon over 3 years for several months at a time (salaries fully paid of course), and we will product results at least as worthy of publication in ‘Discover’.

  • Valerie Sebestyen

    Dogs have been bred over thousands of years to be closely in tune with humans. So it’s not exactly surprising that they turn to people for safety and security, and form a more secure attachment. It’s in their genes. If cats are self-domesticated (as you reported a few years ago), it’s not surprising that they have a different relationship with people. One could easily argue that human babies and parents bond primarily as function of surviving to further propagate their DNA. Kind makes the whole cat/dog comparison pointless.

  • escherhenderson

    B.S. My little female, the baby of the three, kept herself alive until I awoke in the morning so she could die in my arms. I picked her up and after licking my cheek, she quietly died looking into my eyes. The next oldest, who died around the same time, lay down two feet away from me and died with the same eye contact. Our bonds were complete. We are lucky to have cats and dogs, both of whom are better friends than most humans.

    • BellaTerra66

      Best post yet! But then I agree with you.

  • JimP

    These researchers are making fundamental errors in their assumptions, or the press is grossly mis-characterizing it..

    Specifically, they -assume- that being dependent on a person in a stressful situation is -equal- to love/affection/bonding for or to a person.

    Especially when one considers that dogs are basically pack animals that look to their leader for confirmation and course of action, whereas cats are fundamentally independent.

    When stressed, a dog will seek its leader (as they demonstrated), whereas a stressed cat will independently focus its own resources and deal with the situation. When it is de-stressed and relaxed, it will again return to its owner and be affectionate.

    If the study/article made only the claim that cats do not exhibit the same leader-partner following behaviors of dogs, that would be a worthwhile finding. But, apparently, either they or the publishing journalists prefer to miscast the results.

    Sad

    • UncleBob

      The original study was for children. Dogs also ‘passed’ it. Cats failed. They then changed it to be more ‘suitable’ for cats – they still failed. The stupid thing was to test cats at all – they may as well have tested birds.

      • JimP

        Right, I’m not questing the validity of the results, but the interpretation.

        The question is the MEANING of pass/fail — the authors of the study/article (not sure which) seem to equate the with does-/does-not have a meaningful /loving/caring/bonded relationship with the human.

        This is over-interpretation at best, as it is does not show the strength of the bond, but only the level of independence/dependence in dealing with a new stressful situation.

    • Carla Orcutt

      Very well put. Equating love/affection with dependency characterizes most relationships, even those between adult humans and may well be at the heart of so many dysfunctional relationships.

    • John Smith

      Hahaha ok justify it how you want. Cats can’t love, the same as my pet snake. Cats lovers will go to the grave argueing about it but it’s the truth and all cat owners know it deep down. Like getting used much? That’s what my cats does to me, but I’m not going to lie I use her too… for snuggling and calming but let’s not kid ourselves that’s where the relationship stops… Like friends with benifits…

  • philiphansten

    I love both cats and dogs. It shouldn’t be either or! But seriously this study didn’t add anything to what any cat-owner could have told you.

    • UncleBob

      So true! Why do they get offended?

  • Gary

    Secure attachment equals love? Cats show love in other ways.

  • Hey you

    No doubt but that dogs are more dependent upon humans and show more loyalty.

    However, cats can and do create bonds with a human. I know because I had such with an “outdoor” cat.

  • Gloria Jean Dokken

    I have lived with and loved both cats and dogs. Both give lots of love but show it in different ways. Escher’s post made me cry. I have lost many dogs and cats over my 72 years. All were greatly loved and gave me love, companionship, joy, understanding and more. I did the very best I could for all of them and several lived over 20 years and I will never forget any of them. You cannot compare dogs and cats. They are as much the same as they are different. The scientists need to make adjustments to their program.

  • Michelle Montgomery

    This is satire, right?

  • Alan

    What about pet rabbits? My dwarf bunny liked to wander about the neighborhood like a cat, but when chased by a dog would always come running back to me, rather than try to hide under a car or such like a cat will. I liked it best when he would come back to me followed closely by a pretty girl trying to pet him. LOL That happened more often than being chased by a dog as he was too clever for most of them.

  • Shalryn

    Humans and dogs are both pack animals. Cats not so much, although they do form colonies. Given the differences in instinct and fundamental behavioral psychology, how can anyone apply the same interpretation to the actions of dogs and cats? I think someone needs to do a study on the scientists, to find out how they warrant degrees when they have clearly not mastered basic logical thought.

  • jimoppenheimer

    Cats and dogs are really very, very different animals, so one ought not to expect them to be similar on some invented scale.
    Felines function in small groups, but they are excellent at hunting completely alone. Dogs are pack animals and function best in groups. It is felt by some that the dog “owner” is seen as the leader of the pack by the dog. This fundamental difference will cause the two types to act very differently, given identical circumstances.
    I have been diagnosed with migraines, and in the past sometimes I was incapacitated for the day. I would lie in my recliner with a light covering over my eyes and wait for the pain to pass. I had at the time four cats. While they did not fight with one another, they generally stayed in two very discrete groups of two, and seldom did those groups interact.
    One day I had a particularly bad migraine and was just lying in my recliner. At some point, I became aware that, very silently and gently, all four cats had carefully crawled into my lap and were lying there next to one another, purring very softly. When they are ill, cats will purr. I of course have no idea what was really going on, but I think the cats knew that their person was ill and they did the only thing they could, and they all did it together: they crawled into my lap very quietly so as not to disturb me, and purred their healing purr. I will never forget what they did to the day I die.
    I now have an older cat who is deaf, and a bit insecure, and he definitely stays with me, or close to me. I suspect that people who know cats know that cats know a lot, and folks who don’t — well, how would they know?
    Dogs and cats are simply different. One must remember that different animals also behave very differently. You can’t generalize about dogs or cats, really.

    • Carla Orcutt

      A lovely anecdote and one that illustrates well what love means between independent beings. Thank you for sharing.

  • UncleBob

    Amazing – as usual the cat owners have reacted to something they perceive as being negative abouts cats, by ‘attacking’ the messenger. This is a completely valid scientific study that shows that cats are not like children or dogs in their bonding behaviours with humans. The same thing applies to fish and birds and mice and other pet animals – they are NOT like children or dogs. So for me the next science study should be: Why do cat owners always eact so ‘violently’ against such ‘messengers’? Me thinks Hamlet says it best: “The lady doth protest too much”. Want proof your cat does not trust and love you? I will put my puppy/dog at the top of a tree and then after a while go and get it – it will allow me to safely bring it down. Do the same with your kitten/cat – it will tear your eyes out when you get a hold of it. Dogs ‘trust’ and ‘bond’ with humans in a similar way to children, as the tests previously showed – and many others in the past. That cats and birds and fish and mice do not is not an ‘insult’ against them or their owners – many people have great ‘bonds’ with many types of animals – especially with cats. All this science study shows is that overall the bond between humans and other animals are not a ‘deep’ as humans have with dogs. Some dogs do not fit with the rule, and some cats are exceptions to the rule – but the rule is true. Get over it and stop shooting messengers.

    • WBD

      Thanks for clearing the air.

  • Bertina Lafeber

    I don’t want unconditional love. I’d rather earn it.

  • Laura Johnson Cyr

    I have had both cats and dogs and they are wired differently. Cats are intuitive and are healers but are just as protective and loving as dogs. Sadly some people have cats and never get to their intellectual level and therefore never get the intense loving and loyalty from their feline friend. Dogs are very good for needy personalities that require the mindless slobbering and blind loyalty regardless of how the animal is treated. I loved my dogs as much as I loved my cats but I appreciated their differences and did not expect my dog to act like a cat or my cat to act like a dog even though the cats often did act like dogs. People who try to compare the two or who ask which makes the better pet must realize that comparing a dog to a cat is like comparing a horse to a cow. They both have hooves but that is where the similarity ends.

  • dan becker

    Love? Dogs don’t show love toward humans, they show dependence.

  • Robert Caldwell

    Not a surprise to me.That is exactly what I like about cats. Their independence. They choose to be with you. They are not co-dependent.

  • Redragingphoton1

    So basically cats are not co-dependent.

  • Olga Starcher

    Read the title. Read the article. Read the title again. What does this title have to do with the article?

  • Zhang Qinyun

    Do you have to look to your spouse for safety in a strange situation as proof of love? Yes, cats are generally more independent, but that does not mean that they don’t love their people.

  • Lori

    My cats know when I am going to seizure and they lay by me to soothe and heal the seizures with their 35 + htrz healing power (which by the way NASA was/is studying for the purrs healing powers). You can also train cats just as easily as a dog, some times easier, out of their love for you not just for treats.

  • Glaisne

    A lot depends on the individual cat. I’ve known standoffish cats and cats who crave attention and lap time and everything in between.

  • Dont Blink

    The study has been debunked given where it was performed and its small sample size. Also, just because s cat shows an emotion differently doesn’t make it emotionless.

    Small study with rushed conclusions to raise speculation and attention.

  • Teadermin

    Fake news alert. The conclusion (that cats don’t love you) is completely 100% unrelated to the evidence (that cats are panicky with or without their owners being there).

  • YandereMudkip

    CATS DO LOVE YOU. SHUT THE F UP.

  • Bertina Lafeber

    Cats aren’t owned – they are owners. If their human is a good provider and gives good massages a cat will see off any contenders for ownership of that human and will treat that human with extreme possessive love. If the human is inadequate a cat will seek a better one. Hence cats are smarter than dogs.

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