Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: February 7, 2023 by Crystal Uys
The results of the first empirical study on the connection between cats and humans probably come as no surprise to those of us who share our lives with cats: Cats bond with their caregivers to a similar degree as infants and dogs.
In the study, researchers used an abbreviated version of the “secure base test” previously used to assess attachment in dogs and infants. At the start of the experiment, a cat and its caregiver spend 2 minutes together in an unfamiliar environment. The human then leaves, and the cat remains alone in the room for 2 more minutes. In the final stage, the caregiver returns for a 2-minute reunion period.
Secure vs. insecure attachment
When the human returns, the cat’s behavior either shows secure or insecure attachment. A cat who demonstrates secure attachment will continue to confidently explore the room and show few signs of stress. A cat who demonstrates insecure attachment will show signs of stress.
The study looked at 70 kittens and 38 cats over the age of 1 year. Overall, 64.3% of the kittens proved securely attached to their caregivers, while 35.7% had an insecure bond with them. Among the older cats, 65.8% demonstrated secure attachment, while 34.2% were in the insecure category. By comparison, 65% of human infants form secure attachments, while 35% develop insecure bonds. In dogs, 58% of attachments are secure, and 42% are insecure.
I would love to see a follow up study to refine these results and explore what caused cats to experience secure vs. insecure attachment, but I’m not sure how you would even design a study like that, or whether it’s been done with infants or dogs. It would be interesting to analyze how nature versus nurture contributes to attachment.
For more analysis of the study, please visit Medical News Today, or read the complete study on Current Biology.
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.
Amazing what money is spent on silly things like this – as Ingrid noted, we know this already! While some bonding (or not as much) may not happen, esp if a cat is adopted when older, most of the time they will, to some degree.
My oldest (20+) was taken in as a stray kitten. Her predecessor was 5 at the time. I was home post-surgery and so we played together on the floor, fell asleep on the floor, woke and played some more. She bonded TOO well with me – any cats brought in after her were SCUM. The first 2 came when she was about 1yo. Her hatred of them toned down, but always remained and she would NOT associate with them, only me. She wouldn’t attack anyone, but would put them in their place if they got too close!! Now she has somewhat forgotten (she has some dementia going on) – she’s still not “friendly”, but less apt to get testy if the others get too close, for at least a little while.
Most of the others (11 total) have bonded to some degree, most do want to be “with” me – it does vary some. Even the “semi-feral” who lived in a cat shelter for 10 years. The one lost last year was my son’s, had moved a few times with them, but when living in my house, wanted nothing to do with me. He was “rehomed” for about 2 months after they split up, and the first 3 days back in my house, alone, he avoided me and hissed at me. After that, he was very loving and wanted to be with me! I do have another who is a little over-bonded (because of needing “zones” to keep the peace, she is not in my usual daytime location, although I do have to go into the other “zones” during the day – bathroom, feeding often, other tasks. She will cry and if I don’t respond/deal with it, she will pee on the floor. She can’t come into this zone because she doesn’t get along with another in this zone and will pee in here!) At night, her favorite spot in high up on my chest/half in my face, purring up a storm!
Why would cats bond differently than people or dogs anyway? Most dogs are okay with me, even like me, but there are those who don’t. Haven’t yet met a cat who doesn’t like me. A neighbor of my HS friend had a boxer who hated our dog with a passion, and he would glare at me if I was around, even without our dog! Another dog in VT, who I met (briefly – came charging and barking when I showed up, then followed me down the driveway and partway up the road) while trying to find someone who could help me get unstuck in the snow, somehow remembers me even though she only “knew” me for about 10-15 minutes. The next time I was in the area, she followed me everywhere while we were 4-wheeling on my land. Others there thought she was mine! She laid down next to me/against my leg anytime we had to stop. Sometime later when we were there, she was sniffing and checking inside my Jeep and when she saw me down the road she came running full tilt and almost knocked me down! It was a long time between “visits”, so it wasn’t like I spent many days/hours visiting/bonding with her! Either you like someone or you don’t!
I can’t see that this study would apply to retired ferals. My cats bond to me individually but if I leave the scene they would be totally out of their minds in a strange environment. Although I will say that those of them that have had to spend any time at the vet’s without me do stick close when I return. Hmh
I guess by the way the study defines it, that would be considered insecure attachment.
Wow, this is so interesting. I will be sharing this on Facebook with my friends and family! Thanks. 🙂
Thanks for sharing, Kim.
A little over four years ago, Skunky was adopted as a senior cat and immediately bonded with me to the point that he’s my shadow. He will cuddle with my husband, but if I’m around, he will always look for me. If I leave him alone in a familiar place, he’s fine and secure. If it’s unfamiliar, he will stress until I return. Regardless of the place or if I’m in the room with him, he will get stressed and hide if someone unfamiliar comes in and tries to interact with him, especially males. I think much of his insecurity stems from the time when his caretaker was put into hospice and someone took Skunky out of his secure home to put him in foster care. Given the number of cats that go through foster care, it would be interesting to compare the bonding of cats to the bonding of foster children who are later adopted.
That would be a fascinating study, LP.
Very interesting study, Ingrid. I would love to know more specifics on what “Insecure” attachments look like. I assume the study didn’t explain further what kinds of behavior qualified for each of the two parameters. Do you have any thoughts on that?
The only thing they mentioned was that cats who show insecure attachment showed signs of stress when the human returned after two minutes, while cats with secure attachment continued to confidently explore the space.
When I had Nani, she was completely bonded with me and not my husband, She was constantly by my side, if not on my lap. Kiki bonded with me after I lost Nani and when Lulu came along, she seems to get jealous if Lulu cuddles with me at night time. Pele is only bonded with my husband. She sleeps by his side every night and often lays with him on the couch when he’s watching tv. She doesn’t want anything from me except for food or to be brushed.
That’s really interesting how they all formed different bonds. I’ve also seen that dynamic before where a cat who was previously not bonded starts to form a bond after another cat in the household passes.