CONSIDER THE CAT: aloof, independent, bestowing and withdrawing affection according to rules only they understand. Capable of friendship with their human, but not requiring it, and rarely as much as a dog. These tropes are ubiquitous, though many people know from experience just how warm and affectionate cats can be. That’s not news to us. So what can science tell us that we don’t already know? Quite a lot, actually. We matter to cats even more than we think, and our assumptions about their character can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Several years ago, animal behavior specialist Monique Udell of the University of Oregon and her then doctoral student Kristyn Vitale decided to look at cat-human relationships through the lens of attachment theory. The theory, originally developed in the 1970s by psychiatrist John Bowlby, describes the types of relationships that young humans form with their guardians.
Bowlby and the researchers who built on his work observed that infants whose caregivers were consistent, responsive, and affectionate developed what he called secure attachments. Confronted with stress, securely attached children looked to their caregivers for security. Children whose caregivers were distant and unresponsive, or inconsistent with their care, formed insecure attachments, their experience characterized by fear and uncertainty.
Monkeys too demonstrated these types of attachments—an insight in part produced by some of the most infamous research in the grim history of animal experimentation. One key example is Harry Harlow’s maternal deprivation studies on infant rhesus macaques who were separated from their mothers.
Dogs have attachment styles as well, which Udell observed using what is called the Secure Base Test. In 2019 Udell and Vitale published a similar experiment with cats, enrolling 79 people and their kittens; each pair would spend two minutes together in an unfamiliar room, after which the person would step out for just two minutes, leaving the kitten alone. Then the person would return and the researchers would observe the kitten’s reaction.
The young cats responded much as dogs—or human infants—would. Alone in that strange place, they became distressed. When their person returned, most of the kittens sought them out for a rub and perhaps a kind word, then proceeded to explore. The animals were said to be securely attached: They depended on their caregiver for security and, with that as their foundation, engaged with the world. About one-third of the them, however, either avoided the human or snuggled up and stayed there, unwilling to wander on their own. These kittens were insecurely attached, either taking no comfort in their person or clinging to them.
Udell and Vitale explain that feline relationships are more similar to those seen with canines than one might think. Confronted with something strange and upsetting, cats turned to their person for reassurance, says Vitale, who is now a professor of animal behavior at Unity College. Some retreated to a corner of the room; others crawled up into a lap and stayed put.
And when they don’t? A cat may indeed be distant by nature, but this is often not preordained. Instead, an inability to find comfort and security in their person “may be an outcome of life experiences,” says Vitale, as well as that particular cat’s predisposition. Both nature and nurture matter—and even well-meaning people may not appreciate just how sensitive cats can be.
“Common misconceptions that cats need less social interaction, or are more independent, can impact both the amount and quality of social interactions we offer cats,” Udell says. In other words, people who think felines don’t need much attention might be less hands-on with their own companion, which in turn results in a more aloof kitty. (Udell also recently published a study in the journal Animal Cognition on how different pet parenting styles affect dog attachments.)
Sometimes, however, it’s out of a cat lover’s hands. Udell adds that temperament or past history might make it more difficult for a feline to form a secure attachment, even with a warm and responsive person; she hopes to eventually study this. But her and Vitale’s research made me consider my own relationships to the cats in my life: I think of myself as nurturing, and yet there have been times when I disappeared for a day, or entered a room without saying hello and left without saying goodbye. Had they been dogs, I might have been more considerate.
It didn’t occur to me that interaction mattered as much to them as it did to me. I had internalized, albeit subtly, that trope of cats as being content without contact. Heck, as bioethicist Jessica Pierce writes, people who don’t have time for dogs are encouraged to get cats instead; leaving a dog alone for a day or two is understood as distressing to them, even cruel, yet little attention is given to what that is like for a cat.
And as testament to how much their human connections can matter, consider another study from Udell and Vitale, published in 2017. They presented adult cats—pets as well as potential adoptees at a shelter—with a choice of how to spend their time. The animals could investigate an interesting scent, like catnip, play with a toy, interact with a person, or eat. “Social interaction was the most-preferred stimulus category overall for the majority of cats,” the researchers concluded. A human connection was food for their hearts.