Can cats bond with humans like dogs?

Man with a cat

Scientists have proven that cats form strong bonds with their caregivers, much in the same way as dogs and children. 

A pioneering study demonstrates that far from being detached and aloof, cats form an emotional attachment to their caregivers, including something called “secure attachment” - which refers to a scenario where the presence of a caregiver makes them feel secure, calm and safe within an unfamiliar environment.

Animal scientist Kristyn Vitale from Oregon State University and her team of researchers conducted an experiment with 38 adult cats and 79 kittens, involving placing them in unfamiliar situations for regulated lengths of time both, with and without their owners or caregivers. The cats were initially put in an unfamiliar environment for two minutes with their caregiver, followed by two minutes alone, before reintroducing the caregiver for a further two minutes. The behaviours of the cats were observed and then analysed.

The adult cats participated in the experiment once while the kittens repeated the experiment two months later. In the second round 39 of the kittens had undergone a six-week training and socialisation course. The remaining kittens acted as a control group.

The results revealed that 64% of the kittens appeared less stressed during the reunion periods than when separated. The remaining 36% showed signs of “insecure attachment” – they remained stressed when reunited with their caregiver, with the majority seeking cuddles, and the others either avoiding contact or appearing confused about what to do.

Similar results were obtained from the adult cats with 66% showing a secure attachment and 34% insecure. The researchers say that such a split has also been seen in previous research involving children and dogs with their caregivers.

Animal scientist Kristyn Vitale from Oregon State University said: "Like dogs, cats show social flexibility in their bonds with humans."

The six-week "socialisation" training course was carried out to see if the kittens could be taught attachment. However, the proportion of securely and insecurely attached kittens did not change.

"Once an attachment style has been established between the cat and its caregiver, it appears to remain relatively stable over time, even after a training and socialisation intervention," said Dr Vitale.

This study, published in the journal Culture Biology, appears to contradict previous research that suggests that cats do not need human bonds because they do not demonstrate signs of separation anxiety. 

The research suggests that cats may well be able to form deep bonds with humans after all, they just do it in their own special way.

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