It's a frequent enough conversation in my apartment, and I'm sure in many homes with pets hanging around: After one of our cats does something especially adorable, either my partner or I will wonder aloud, "Do they think of us as their parents?"
The barriers to verbal interspecies communication makes this question impossible for our feline friends to answer, try as they might to demonstrate their affections with head-bumps and slobbery licks. A new study published on Monday in Current Biology contains some promising findings, however. According to researchers from Oregon State University, cats displayed distinct attachment styles toward their caregivers similar to dogs and babies in an experiment.
What this means is that cats, far from being the inscrutable and fundamentally uninterested creatures they're sometimes portrayed to be, may actually form unique and meaningful relationships with their owners.
As explained in the study, the researchers performed an attachment test that's been used on primates and dogs, paired with attachment style criteria from human infant literature. This test comprised of 70 kitten subjects, who were put in a room with their caregiver for two minutes before being left alone for two minutes and then reunited. The researchers observed the kittens' behaviour and organized them into attachment styles familiar to human babies and dogs: secure, ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized.
The study reports that more than 60 percent of the kittens displayed a secure attachment style, which meant that they were distressed when their caregiver left the room but displayed a healthy balance of attachment and exploration when they came back. Roughly 30 percent of the kittens displayed an insecure attachment style, which means they remained stressed upon reunion and either displayed excessive contact, avoidance, or some disorganized mix. According to the study, the split of secure and insecure attachment styles was similar to that found in the literature for human children.
These findings remained relatively constant even after a follow-up two months later, the study reports, and in adult cats when the experiment was done with 38 cats older than one year.
According to the study, social cognition in dogs has received much more research interest than in cats, and we may be underestimating felines. While these studies should be taken with a grain of salt (I observe cats every day), I've said it before, and I'll say it again: cats are nice, actually, and science is slowly proving it.