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It Turns Out Cats Are Just As Strongly-Connected to Their Owners as Dogs

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It Turns Out Cats Are Just As Strongly-Connected to Their Owners as Dogs

Posted by Juan Hernandez on
Updated at: February 13, 2021

We all know who man’s best friend is, obviously. He has four legs, a tail, a soft coat of fur, and you couldn’t be more comforted to have him curl up next to you when you finally settle down by the end of a long day. 

Now, is it possible we handed that moniker to dogs a bit prematurely?

If you think canines earned their role solely by being the most loyal of house pets, new research suggests cats may have been overlooked for far too long. In spite of the lack of excitement and joy they display when we come home after a long day at work — sometimes completely ignoring us altogether, unlike our giddy canine companions — the research found that cats are just as strongly bonded to us and attached as dogs. 

Kristyn Vitale, an animal scientist working at Oregon State University, led a study in which 79 kittens and 38 adult cats were tested in what’s known as secure and insecure attachments conditions. In a secure attachment, an animal will relax and explore an unfamiliar or strange environment when reunited with their human owner and companion. In an insecure attachment, animals will continue to exhibit stressed behavior when reunited with their human companion, either clinging to them desperately or avoiding them as much as possible. 

"Like dogs, cats display social flexibility in regard to their attachments with humans," said Vitale. "The majority of cats are securely attached to their owner and use them as a source of security in a novel environment."

In humans, the three attachment styles or classifications are secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment and avoidant-insecure attachment, and the four main elements of attachment include 

-Safe Haven. A child who feels threatened or afraid can return to his caregiver to be comforted and soothed.

-Secure Base. The caregiver provides a secure, reliable base from which the child can explore the world.

-Proximity Maintenance. The child tries to stay close to his caregiver, which keeps him safe.

-Separation Distress. The child becomes upset and distressed when separated from his caregiver.

The applications of attachment theory to human-pet relationships is nothing new, keeping one counter-intuitive notion about the pet-human relationship in mind: humans assume the caretaker role in the bond they form with their pet, while the relationships people form with one another can often switch off between caretaker and the one being taken care of. However, past research has noted that pets’ roles as emotionally supportive companions and the belief that we receive their unconditional love allow the connection to work both ways. 

In Vitale’s research, the feline and their human owner were placed in a room together with the owner sitting in a designated spot marked by a circle. If the cat entered the circle, the person was allowed to interact with it. Whenever the cat was outside of the circle, the person was not allowed to engage with their pet. After two minutes, the person left the room altogether and the cat was left alone. Another two minutes later, the person would return to the room and their designated circle once again. Adult cats were tested in this situation once while each kitten was tested twice. This entire cycle was filmed for each human-cat pairing and researchers analyzed the video to determine which attachment classification the observed cats best fit into. 

More than 64 percent of kittens were categorized with secure attachments while more than 35 percent were categorized as insecurely attached. Adult cats had very similar results, with 65.8 percent demonstrating secure attachment versus 34.2 percent being insecure.

An interesting note about these results: hovering around a 65 percent secure attachment rate is very, very close to that of the common level of attachment between human mothers and their infant children (65 percent). And cats scored even higher in their attachment to their human owners than dogs, with 61 percent of canines testing for secure attachment versus 39 percent testing for insecure attachments in a similar 2018 study of 59 companion dogs in. 

"In my opinion, it's very important to go out and try to interact with your cat and see what happens," Vitale said last year. "I think there's this idea that dogs are this way, and cats are that way. But there's a lot of variability in both populations."

 Vitale’s research is another piece in a growing body that constantly seems to call out our perceived preference for canines over cats. While plenty of people have a deep appreciation and love for cats that even surpasses their affinity for dogs, there’s no denying that dogs tend to be viewed as the more affectionate and loyal of the two. Cats, of course, don’t help their case with their aloof nature toward humans. 

 In 2014, Psychology Today reported that small children prefer dogs to cats — and even to Teddy bears — at a much higher margin just by comparing photos of the animals’ faces side by side. "The appreciation of less-popular animals, like cats, probably needs time to develop, and appears to be more dependent on their physical appeal and on our contacts with them,” the report read, suggesting that there’s something innate about our proclivity to loving canines over just about any other domesticated animal. In that study, there was a belief that the cute, fuzzy, infantile appearance of dogs has a more natural appeal for people. 

According to another study from Dr. Colleen Kirk of the New York Institute of Technology, there actually is a more in-depth answer behind our apparent affection toward canines outweighing that of our affection toward cats. The title of her paper, “Dogs have masters, cats have staff: Consumers' psychological ownership and their economic valuation of pets,” pretty much gives us the answer as determined by Kirk. While we truly want to see our dogs as a part of our family, Kirk’s report points out that the psychology of our affection is driven by perceived ownership of that dog. It’s actually more revealing of us than it is of anything admirable about dogs themselves because Kirk points out that this feeling of ownership has less to do with an actual measure of self-investment than it does a desire for control. If it says anything about dogs or cats at all, it’s that we instinctively know or at least believe that dogs are more apt to be controlled than cats. Or as author Mary Bly put it, "Dogs come when they're called; cats take a message and get back to you."