Surprise! Cats are just as attached to their staff as are dogs and babies

September 24, 2019 • 11:00 am

There’s a new paper in Current Biology (click screenshot below, pdf here, and reference at bottom), which shows that, using standard methodology for measuring attachment to staff (“owners” in the vulgate), both kittens and adult cats are as attached to their staff as are human babies and d*gs. The paper is very short—two pages if you don’t read the supplementary material—and you can peruse it below. There’s also a good summary of the results in Ars Technica by Jennifer Oullette.

Initially, 70 kittens between 3 and 8 months old were tested for their degree of “security” using the Secure Base Effect test (SBT). As Jennifer notes, it’s done this way:

The felines spent two minutes in an unfamiliar room with their owner, who sat on an X in the middle of a circle marked on the floor and could only interact with their cat when the animal entered the circle. The owner then left the room, leaving the feline alone for two minutes, followed by a two-minute reunion, with the owner once again seated on the X within the circle. The researchers then examined the resulting video footage of how the cats behaved upon reunion with their owners, grouping them into three categories: secure attachment, insecure-ambivalent, and insecure-avoidant.

Securely attached cats actively greeted their owners upon reunion, yet were sufficiently calm and confident not to cling too much. “They’re able to use their owner as a secure base to explore out from,” said Vitale, with behavior evenly balanced between greeting their owner and exploring the unfamiliar space.

That’s in marked contrast to the behavior of cats deemed insecure-ambivalent. In that case, “We see persistent stress after the owner’s return,” said Vitale. “Rather than going back to exploring, they cling to their owner’s lap, sometimes engaging in a kind of spinning behavior where they almost can’t get comfortable in the owner’s lap.” An insecure-avoidant cat “shows very little visible response to their owner’s return,” said Vitale—not greeting their owner, ignoring them, or turning away.

Here’s a video showing how it’s done:

The results: Among the kittens, 64.3% were “securely attached” and 35.7% were insecurely attached, with the latter category comprising 84% ambivalent kittens, 12% avoidant kittens, and 4% “disorganized” kittens. The 64%/36% dichotomy is similar to that seen among human children (65%/35%) and d*gs (58%/42%: d*gs are MORE insecure, as expected)—all using the SBT protocol.

To see if the attachment could be increased by training, some of the kittens were given a six-week “training and socialization intervention with their caretaker”. These lessons had little effect: there were no differences between experimental and control (un-tutored kittens) after the training or even two months later.

Further, the researchers did the same test on adult cats, and the distribution of secure and insecure cats was pretty much the same as the kittens. Here’s a graph showing the baseline kittens, “socialized-trained” kittens, and adult cats. No standard errors are given, but the distributions look pretty much the same. And there’s also a photo showing the different attachment styles:

(From paper): Figure 1. The main attachment styles observed in the cat–human bond. (A) Proportion of three main attachment styles observed in kittens and adult cats. (B) Cat with secure attachment. (C) Cat with insecure-ambivalent attachment. (D) Cat with insecure-avoidant attachment.

(Why is the “insecure-ambivalent” attachment sitting in the staff’s lap? Because it’s clingy, and seeking reassurance.)

Finally, the authors measured “separation distress” in cats, as quantified by “meow vocalizations” when the owner was gone. As they report ”

Attachment theory predicts that both secure and insecure-ambivalent individuals should show signs of distress including vocalizations during this phase with little difference between secure and insecure-ambivalent individuals [5]. Insecure-avoidant and disorganized individuals should show less separation distress [5]. As predicted, cats categorized as secure or insecure-ambivalent showed equivalent levels of separation distress in the alone phase as measured by vocalization frequency (U(32) = 68.5, Z = –0.843, p = 0.40; see Video S1 Timestamp 8:08), and both groups showed significantly more attachment distress than insecure-avoidant and disorganized cats (H(2) = 7.39, p = 0.025).

Oh, those disorganized cats! I’m not sure why, however, secure versus insecure-ambivalent cats shouldn’t differ in their levels of distress. The authors say that this is predicted by “attachment theory”, but that’s above my pay grade.

In the end, one concludes, at least from this protocol, that cats are just as attached to their staff as are babies and d*gs. The authors suggest that this is because cats and d*gs are both facultatively social “in free-roaming settings”, and fluctuate between being solitary and running in groups. Cat, like dogs, are “social generalists,” and the auhtors suggest that this flexibility has adapted cats to living in “anthropogenic environments”, a fancy-schmancy way of saying “living around humans.” Why is flexibility favored? I suppose because it’s good to get attached to some owners but also to retain some solitary traits, perhaps for purposes of hunting, or to deal with owners who aren’t so nice.

Hili: A secure cat

h/t: Bill, Michael, Dom et al. (many readers sent me this link; thanks to all)


Vitale, K. R., A. C. Behnke, and M. A. R. Udell. 2019. Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans. Current Biology 29:R864-R865.

14 thoughts on “Surprise! Cats are just as attached to their staff as are dogs and babies

      1. They have lots of interesting articles – see also this on Jerry’s other passion – squirrels –
        Osmolyte Depletion and Thirst Suppression Allow Hibernators to Survive for Months without Water

        Hibernating squirrels employ several strategies to survive for months without water

        Hibernating squirrels have decreased blood osmolality despite water deprivation

        Basal thirst is inhibited in ground squirrels during hibernation

        Antidiuretic hormonal release and water seeking are uncoupled during hibernation

  1. I question whether non-exploration is a result of insecurity. When the authors describe kittens that “can’t get comfortable”, OK, maybe, but I’ve had cats that are just naturally “lap” kitties, and will just park and sleep. I find it hard to believe that they didn’t encounter this in their research.

    I do think that this explodes the myth of “aloof” cats. I can’t ever remember having a cat with a personality like that. I’ve had a couple of ferals that I could never make friends with, but they were older and more wary, not kittens. Every kitten that I have socialized myself has been friendly and loving, although some more than others.

    I would also like to know how old the “avoidant” kittens were. It’s possible that, just like other species, some take longer to trust than others. I’ve seen this with goat kids. We separate our kids from their mothers right after they are born, and bottle raise them. Most are tame and friendly right from the get-go, but every now and then we’ll get one that is less trusting and more distant than her age-mates. This usually disappears once they are handled more, when we’re getting ready for a show, or, at the latest, when they first freshen and are being milked twice a day. A few years ago I had one that was very nervous around people until she got into a bunch of kochia and got hypothiaminosis. We found her down and thrashing around right before we started milking, so we treated her and brought her into the milkroom, where Josh held her in his arms to keep her from hurting herself while I milked. By the time I finished milking, the vitamins were taking effect and she was able to stand up, so we put her back in with the other kids. After that she was perfectly tame.


  2. Not surprised but in the end, every cat is different, at least that has been my experience. The two cats we have are as different as night and day. The female, a tortoiseshell, is the boss and yet needs lots of attention. Thinks she is a human. The Tabby, a male is deathly afraid of every human except us and does not get along with other cats. Maybe has mental problems, who knows.

  3. I’ve only had one problem cat…he just wouldn’t/couldn’t use a litter box. He much preferred a basket of laundry or behind the furniture. We ended up throwing out a lot of clothing! We loved that cat, but had to give him to a lady that already had 6 and she didn’t mind a non-potty trained cat. I was relieved I didn’t have to put him in a shelter.

    1. Wow. I had never heard of a cat who couldn’t figure out a litter box.

      After losing both of our kitties (12/24/2018 & 5/24/2019), we got a new tuxedo shorthair on June 24, from a rescue shelter.

      For the first month, we actually didn’t know if we had a new cat or not. We nicknamed her “Whitefoot” (she has four white paws) after “Bigfoot,” because she was a kitty known only in legend and from a few fleeting glimpses. (Stuff kept disappearing from her food dish and other stuff kept appearing in the litter box, so we knew _something_ was happening.) In the next two months, she grew bold enough to show herself at a distance and then within the same room as us–sometimes. She would play with her toys in the middle of the night and buckle up the runners as she boogetied about.

      Now, in just the last week, she allows me (but not her mama) to touch her gently after putting down her kibble. She has morphed from frightened to curious.


      1. I know, weird huh? And we put litter boxes everywhere…one in each of the 3 bathrooms, and one in the living room (ack! we were desperate) and one outside. Didn’t matter.


        Yup, that says it all. 🙂

  4. We have a new kitten in the house recently, Leia (as in the Star Wars Princess) and she’s already attached. She’s extremely playful even by cat standards and is keeping everyone on their toes, including Coco Chanel. Coco hasn’t quite figured out what to make of Leia yet. Sometimes she starts to play with her, sometimes she hisses and growls at her. Meanwhile, Leia loves Coco and won’t give her a moment alone.

  5. I would be interesting to see if the closest wild relative to domestic cats showed similar attachment behavior (once they are habituated to certain persons in an experimental setting). I suspect that such a comparison would not be possible. Still, since we know that dogs were domesticated for >15,000 years from already highly social wolves, one can’t help but wonder if attachment behavior in cats evolved mostly after domestication.

  6. Too many unknowns IMO. Putting a kitty in an unfamiliar space that smells of other kitties & other staff? I wouldn’t trust that the cat’s behaviour reliably tests attachment to staff – some cats will explore their new boundaries [curiosity] while others might seek out the familiar [staff], but one can’t conclude the curious ones are any less attached to their humans.

  7. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that cats are social animals who like to pretend they aren’t. Although, my current cat doesn’t even bother pretending.

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