I grew up with both cats and dogs. We always had at least one of each in our household. While our dogs had to be near us nearly every second (or at least in the same room), our cats seemed they couldn’t care less, except when it was time to eat. It was easy to see how dependent the dogs were, and how independent the cats were. A new study out of the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom reveals why. In a nutshell it all comes down to safety and security.
Animal behavior specialists Professor Daniel Mills and Alice Potter conducted the study and found that “while dogs perceive their owners as a safe base, the relationship between people and their feline friends appears to be quite different.” In other words, while dogs depend on us for a sense of protection, cats do not.
“The domestic cat has recently passed the dog as the most popular companion animal in Europe, with many seeing a cat as an ideal pet for owners who work long hours. Previous research has suggested that some cats show signs of separation anxiety when left alone by their owners, in the same way that dogs do, but the results of our study show that they are in fact much more independent than canine companions. It seems that what we interpret as separation anxiety might actually be signs of frustration,” Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioral Medicine at the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, said.
As part of the study, the research team observed cats and their owners in various environments. This included the cat with his or her owner in an unfamiliar location, the cat with a stranger and the cat on his or her own. For each situation, the researchers looked for how much contact the cat sought out, the level of the passivity from the cat and signs of distress in the cat when the owner was not present.
“Although our cats were more vocal when the owner rather than the stranger left them with the other individual, we didn’t see any additional evidence to suggest that the bond between a cat and its owner is one of secure attachment. This vocalization might simply be a sign of frustration or learned response, since no other signs of attachment were reliably seen. In strange situations, attached individuals seek to stay close to their carer, show signs of distress when they are separated and demonstrate pleasure when their attachment figure returns, but these trends weren’t apparent during our research,” Mills said. “For pet dogs, their owners often represent a specific safe haven; however it is clear that domestic cats are much more autonomous when it comes to coping with unusual situations. Our findings don’t disagree with the notion that cats develop social preferences or close relationships, but they do show that these relationships do not appear to be typically based on a need for safety and security. As far as we could tell, the cats of owners who considered them to be highly attached did not differ from the others in this regard.”
The results show that yes, cats probably prefer their owners to strangers; however, cats do not rely on their owners for reassurance. Mills and Potter believe this is due to the solitary and independent nature of cats.
For more information, read the published study at scientific journal, PLOS ONE.