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Cats and secure attachment to owners

Potter A, Mills DS. Domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) do not show signs of secure attachment to their owners. PLoS One 2015;10(9):e0135109.  ( Free article )

Comments:  Behaviorists consider “secure attachment” to mean that an individual’s caregiver is perceived as a focus of safety and security in otherwise threatening environments.  A commonly used test to determine if the bond between an individual and its primary caregiver meets the requirements of a secure attachment is the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test (SST).  The SST involves placing the subject in an unfamiliar room (the strange situation) with its caregiver, the potential attachment figure, and a stranger, someone to whom there should be no attachment.  Then there is a series of episodes of separation from, and reunions with, the caregiver and the stranger.  In situations where the caregiver-subject bond involves secure attachment, the response to the caregiver’s presence of absence should be different than the response to the stranger’s presence or absence.  This test was originally developed to investigate the attachment between human mothers and their infants, but has also been used to study the caregiver attachment of another primate, the chimpanzee, as well as the relationship between dogs and their caregivers, and hand-reared wolves and their caregivers.

The SST was applied to dogs because it was noted that the dog-owner bond had similarities to the human parent-child bond, and in a number of studies, characteristics of secure attachment were found to be included in the typical dog-human bond.  Cats as well as dogs appear to demonstrate separation- related problems, which may be related to attachment to owners. The authors created a modified and counterbalanced version of the SST in a cross-over design experiment involving 20 cat-owner pairs, with 10 such pairs each participating one of the two versions of the SST first.  Previous studies using the SST with cat-owner dyads did not control for an episode-order effect, which is the sequence in which the caregiver and the stranger participate in the procedure.  In this study, the counterbalanced procedure in which the sequence is reversed for half of the cats, controls for the episode-order effect. The aim of the study was to address two questions: (1) how strongly do the measures of attachment defined by the SST reflect the true nature of cat-owner attachment, and (2) do any behaviors that cats demonstrate in the SST indicate that the cat-owner relationship meets the requirements of a secure attachment as defined within the SST.

The cat-owner pairs were recruited in the authors’ local area. Owners were all adults, 4 males and 16 females, and represented a wide range of lifestyles including full-time employment (n = 10), part-time employment (n =3), students (n = 3), and unemployed (n = 2).  Thirteen male and 7 female cats, ranging in age from 1-9 years, participated; all cats had lived in their current homes for at least 10 months.  Only one female cat was spayed, but none of the intact females participating were in estrus at the time of the study.  All of the males had been neutered.  Breeds represented were pedigree British Shorthairs (n = 2), domestic shorthairs (n = 15), and domestic longhairs (n =3).  All but one cat had regular outdoor access, and all were healthy.  Only one of the cats was not used to being transported in a cat carrier.  Eleven of the cats lived with at least one other cat, and 2 lived with a dog.

Two testing rooms were similarly equipped with two chairs, one for the owner and one for the stranger, three cat toys, and a small enclosed area in which a cat could hide.  The rooms were equipped with a video camera system that allowed the researchers as well as the owners (when not present in the rooms), to monitor the cat being studied.  Both the modified and reversed modified SST consisted of nine 3-minute episodes in which the cat was either alone or with the owner and/or a stranger.  During each episode a procedure took place which was designed to alter the level and form of social support available to the cat, or to trigger seeking out of an attachment figure.  Various combinations of owner/stranger interactions with the cat such as initiation of play or allowing the cat to come to the person after they entered the room and greet them, as well as owner-stranger interactions such as conversation, composed the procedures during the episodes.  In 2 of the 9 episodes the cat was alone in the room. Two weeks later, the study was counterbalanced by reversing the episode sequence in a different room for all owner-cat pairs.  In all test situations the stranger was a female human of similar height, build and appearance.

Types of behaviors expected from the cats that would demonstrate secure attachment to the caregiver as defined by the SST would be increased passive behavior (gathering of information from the environment from a stationary position), exploration, and social play in the presence of the caregiver; greater seeking of proximity and attempts to maintain proximity/contact with the caregiver; greater vocalization when separated from the caregiver; and orientation to the door when the caregiver is absent.  Two of the cats hid during an entire experimental testing period and were excluded from analytical consideration.  Amongst the 18 remaining cat-owner pairs that were evaluated in the study, no significant difference was found in the amount of exploration/locomotion by the cat, whether in the presence of the owner or the stranger, nor in the amount of play with the owner versus the stranger.  The absence of the owner did not significantly reduce the time spent playing with the stranger, which would be expected if the owner functioned as a “secure base” and therefore an attachment figure for the cat.  As play in cats is likely associated with solitary predatory-type activity, it may not have a social relevance.  While passive behaviors in children are indicative of relaxation in the presence of a secure base, cats in this study as well as a previous SST study were found to be more inactive in the presence of a stranger, so passive behaviors in felines could actually be associated more with a state of anxiety.

In dogs, standing by the door when the owner leaves is a robust measure of separation anxiety.  This was found to be inconsistent in cats, as was vigilance behavior, wherein the subject sits, stands, or lies down with eyes fully open, and scans its surroundings.  There also was no significant difference in the effect of absence of owner versus stranger on vocalization.

Based on the results of this study, the authors concluded that cats do not appear to attach to their owners as a focus of safety and security (“secure base”) in the same way that dogs do to their owners, or children to their parents.  The behaviors chosen to evaluate attachment in the SST may not be biologically relevant given the cat’s nature as an independent, solitary hunter. This nature may determine that a cat’s relationship with its owner does not have to (but still might in the case of some individuals) involve a perception of the owner as a safety and security attachment focus.  The authors hypothesize that in those cats in which separation-related problems are identified, there could be a classical attachment bond to the owner, but it is more likely that such problems are a response to frustration at owner absence.  Further research is required to test this hypothesis. [PJS]

See also:
Edwards C, Heiblum M, et. Experimental evalution of attachment behaviors in owned cats.  J Vet Behav 2007;2:119-125.

Schwartz S. Separation anxiety syndrome in cats: 136 cases (1991-2000). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2002;220:1028-33.