Your cat may not need you as much as you need it

Cats may not rely on their owners for safety and security the way dogs do, a new study has found.

Ronald W. Erdrich/Abilene Reporter-News/AP/File
Thomas gets a belly rub from Joanie Gipson while laying on her desk in the Stephens County Clerk's office in Breckenridge, Texas, July 24. Though capable of developing social relationships with humans, cats are less inclined than dogs to look to their owners for a sense of safety and security, according to a new study from the University of Lincoln in England.

Your cat may love you, but it may not need you.

That’s according to a new study by animal behavior specialists at England's University of Lincoln, which confirms the old trope about our feline friends: that unlike dogs, which perceive their owners as a safe base, adult cats don’t necessarily rely on others to provide a sense of protection.

“This is not about whether cats love their owners,” Daniel Mills, a professor of veterinary behavioral medicine and co-author of the study, told Live Science. But it does provide evidence that cats don’t look to human owners as a source of safety and security, and may be fundamentally different from dogs in that regard, he said.

“The domestic cat has recently passed the dog as the most popular companion animal in Europe, with many seeing a cat as an ideal pet for owners who work long hours,” Professor Mills said in a statement. “Previous research has suggested that some cats show signs of separation anxiety when left alone by their owners, in the same way that dogs do, but the results of our study show that they are in fact much more independent than canine companions.

“It seems that what we interpret as separation anxiety might actually be signs of frustration,” he added.

To conduct their study, the researchers used the Strange Situation test, devised in the 1970s by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. The procedure originally placed a mother or primary caregiver in a room with her baby and a few toys, and documented how the child responded when separated and then reunited with the parent. Dr. Ainsworth classified the responses into three types of attachment, depending on the range of emotion the child showed in the presence of a familiar parent figure versus that of a stranger.

The most common response was what Ainsworth called a “secure attachment”: that is, the child explored a room and engaged with strangers more freely when the parent or caregiver – the child’s “safe base” – is in the room.

Dogs develop similar relationships with their owners, treating the latter as a safe haven in the presence of threatening strangers, according to a 2013 study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

“Similarly to parents of infants, owners can provide a buffer against stress in dogs,” the researchers wrote.

Felines, however, displayed little obvious distress when separated from their owners, the Lincoln researchers found. They observed the relationships between 20 cat-human pairs, noting the amount of contact sought by the cat, the level of passive behavior, and signs of distress caused by the absence of the owner.

“Although our cats were more vocal when the owner rather than the stranger left ... we didn’t see any additional evidence to suggest that the bond between a cat and its owner is one of secure attachment,” Mills said. The vocalization could simply be a sign of frustration or learned response, since the cats did not consistently display other signs of attachment.

“For pet dogs, their owners often represent a specific safe haven; however, it is clear that domestic cats are much more autonomous when it comes to coping with unusual situations,” Miller added.

Still, cat lovers shouldn't fret or feel unloved: “Our findings don’t disagree with the notion that cats develop social preferences or close relationships," he said, "but they do show that these relationships do not appear to be typically based on a need for safety and security."

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