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

By Seriously Science | October 6, 2017 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.

  • OWilson

    I’m not particularly a cat lover, but I did inherit a family cat.

    Anyone who has had a cat lie on their chest listening to your heartbeat, purring like heck, and kneading you with those two front paws, which I’m told they only do to their primary caregiver, cannot be unimpressed by by their love and devotion, (not to mention their good taste :)

    • Maia

      Anyone who has had the experience you describe with their cat, (I have), has also had other obviously “very attached” experiences. One of my cats “had to” sit on my lap at all times, “had to” run up my legs if frightened, and cried if I closed the door on her, raced inside when it was opened and begged for a petting session. Sounds pretty cool and aloof, doesn’t it?

      • OWilson

        We always had a cat or a dog (or both) in the family, but now I prefer the freedom and independence of being pet free.

        I spend a lot of time with my brothers family, and they have two Maltese little white fluff balls, one is needy and nervous, the other one is bold and thinks he is a Great Dane.

        The joy and affection they give to the family is priceless, even though the breeding and marketing methods of these toy dogs is problematic.

        Which is why we always had a mutt!

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

    Dogs are hierarchal social. Either you are the dog’s god or the dog is your god. Dogs can and must be disciplined. It’s like having a bitchy wife and a broken riding crop.

    Cat’s are social convenience. They are not walked or washed, they supplement their own feeding. They purr. Chill out a cat by constructing a hollow cat-sized rectangle of Blue Tape on light-colored carpet. How simple is that? Cats cannot be disciplined, but they are behaviorally malleable to structured rewards.

    • Maia

      Just for balance, let’s not forget that dogs are like certain male humans– who simultaneously believe that the world turns on their every whim, yet they cannot do the simplest things for themselves…. like refrain from eating the used kleenex the moment you are out of the room.

  • rejean levesque

    I don’t see why the “dependency” exhibited by dogs should be viewed as a quality.

    • Billy Brandon

      Aldous Huxley — ‘To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.’ Dog lovers expect their dogs to be obedient and needy, dependent upon them. No thanks.

      • rejean levesque

        Finally, it is the dog lover who is dependent…

      • JR

        A dog acts needy because it has learned to – the dog is what you made it. Most working dogs don’t act like that. They may want to sleep next to you, but that’s what packs do.

    • Maia

      Yeah, who gets to decide what a quality is?

      • rejean levesque

        Certainly not the dog…or the cat.

  • Kendra

    I love my little darlings. For me and other cat owners, I’ve never met any who evinced the opinion that their cats *need* them. That’s what makes them wanting to spend time with us special — you KNOW they could literally be doing anything else if they wished :-)

    • Maia

      Most maybe, but not all cats fit this description in my own experience. At least one of them WAS needy and not very independent.

  • Billy Brandon

    This is a misleading article at best. So my cat, or any human being who does not behaviorally see me “as a focus of safety and security in otherwise threatening environments” does not love me in the needy way that dogs and kids do. Dogs and kids are always needy, or some clinging insecure spouses. I have no desire to be liked by any needy creatures, only creatures who can take me or leave me, and preferably like to be around me. You use a weird and narrow definition of “love” to assert the headline.

    • Maia

      Well, I’m not sure “love” was defined at all in the article. But it’s fairly clear that people who love independence and who love independent beings, also cand and do express mutual affection.

  • sabelmouse

    being needy is love?
    an independent creature of any species attaching/giving affection is worth more than a dependent one clinging.
    might as well call a stalker a lover.

    • rejean levesque

      Right on!

  • Glaisne

    A lot depends upon how a cat is socialized when it’s a kitten. Cats are on a continuum from totally needy to totally independent/indifferent and every degree in between.

  • 31007 – TANSTAAFL

    So what this study proved is that dogs are pack animals dependent on the alpha animal and cats are independant.


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