Cats may have ‘attachment styles’ that mirror people’s

Sixty-five percent of felines formed secure bonds with their owners, a study finds

cat rubbing up against owner's legs

Most cats in a new study are secure attachers, researchers say, meaning the felines are comforted by the return of their owners after a brief absence and continue playing.

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Cats may have “attachment styles” that resemble those of people. And contrary to cats’ aloof reputation, most felines form deep, secure bonds with their owners, researchers say.

Attachment theory, developed in the 1950s, suggests that early in life, people predominantly form one of four styles of attachment: secure and three types of insecure called ambivalent, avoidant or disorganized. Secure attachers are comforted by a caretaker’s presence; ambivalent tend to be clingy and overdependent; and avoidant seem disinterested. Disorganized attachers show a mix of contradictory behaviors, seeking attention and then resisting it.

Now a study finds that those four attachment styles show up in cats. Perhaps surprisingly to those who think cats don’t care about us, 64 percent of felines were identified as secure. Roughly 30 percent were ambivalent, and the rest were mostly avoidant. That mirrors the attachment styles seen among human infants and other animals, including other primates and dogs, the researchers report September 23 in Current Biology.

The findings indicate that cats have a greater flexibility and depth of social relationships than previously thought. “It suggests that some cats are bonding with us as caretakers,” says coauthor Monique Udell, an animal behaviorist at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

In their version of a secure base test — a type of psychology experiment typically used to study the relationship between a parent and infant — the researchers set up a nondescript room, bare except for a few toys. The team instructed each owner to sit in the middle of the room and ignore his or her kitten for two minutes, not making eye contact or speaking unless the cat stepped inside a circle outlined on the floor. Owners were allowed to interact with their pet if the cat entered the circle. Then, the owner left the cat alone in the room for two minutes, before re-entering and again sitting inside the circle.  

A woman and a cat in a research lab
An owner and her cat participate in an experiment to determine if cats have attachment styles like people’s. The cat is curious and playful, signs of a secure attachment style, researchers say.K. Vitale/Oregon State University

The researchers tested 79 kittens and their owners and recorded each pair’s interactions on camera. Based on how the cat reacted to their owner’s return, the scientists were able to assign 70 of the felines with an attachment style.

Kittens with a secure style greeted their owners warmly, rubbed against the person or allowed physical contact, before going to explore the room or play with a toy, the team found. Cats with the insecure-ambivalent attachment style sat in their owner’s lap and demanded constant attention, while those that were insecure-avoidant hid or ran away from physical contact.

“But it doesn’t mean insecure cats aren’t attached to their owner,” says Kristyn Vitale, a graduate student studying animal behavior also at Oregon State University. “I think there’s this idea that cats should be glued to their [owner’s] side all the time, but that’s not really a healthy behavior.”

When Udell along with Vitale and fellow student Alexandra Behnke repeated the experiment with adult cats, the team found a similar breakdown in attachment styles, with about 25 out of 38 cats forming a secure bond. The findings indicate that secure attachment is likely a biological trait that may have evolved to improve survival, Vitale says.

Still, psychologists debate what tests like the secure base test actually indicate, but most agree they help to show how individuals bond. Most such tests are done with people, and it’s not clear how different relationship types can affect a person later in life.

The same can be said for the test in cats, says Maya Opendak, a neuroscientist at New York University Langone Health who was not involved in the study. “The test is very good for what it seeks to measure, which is attachment quality,” she says. But “the test itself doesn’t necessarily predict later life outcomes.”

In people, some psychologists have shown that parenting and life experiences can affect kids’ attachment styles. To see if a particular kitten’s attachment could change with training, 39 of the kittens were enrolled in a socialization class and 31 weren’t.

For six weeks of classes, the kittens socialized with other cats and unfamiliar adults, and learned how to sit or walk on leash. But when all of the kittens repeated the original experiment, very few switched attachment styles. It appears that the bond formed between a human and a cat is stable over time, which means those first interactions are crucial, the researchers say.

The team hopes that understanding how cats bond with humans ultimately could help more cats be adopted. In particular, the researchers are investigating how shelter or foster home environments may affect cats’ attachment styles, and what might help them develop more secure attachments styles.

“Many of these cats are very receptive to forming strong bonds,” says Udell. “The potential is there.”

Sofie Bates was the Fall 2019 intern at Science News. She holds an undergraduate degree in genetics and a master’s degree in science communication.

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