Do Cats Love Their Owners as Much as Dogs Do?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Recent research concludes that like infants, dogs, and primates, most cats also form secure and insecure attachments with their caregivers
  • An earlier study, however, found the opposite; conflicting research results on the cat-human bond may be a result of a general lack of research into the thinking and behavior of domesticated cats
  • Attachment theory aside, a growing body of research suggests cats enjoy interacting with their humans

Researchers at Oregon State University have scientifically concluded a fact about cats that those of us who actually live with them concluded ages ago — kitties love and bond with us just as dogs do, they just do it feline-style.

According to ScienceDaily, "… the way domestic cats respond to their caregivers suggests that their socio-cognitive abilities and the depth of their human attachments have been underestimated."1

Study Shows Majority of Cats Are Securely Attached to Their Humans

The study shows that, just like kids and canines, pet cats form secure and insecure bonds with their humans.2 These findings suggest that bonding between species is not exclusive to dogs.

"Like dogs, cats display social flexibility in regard to their attachments with humans," said lead study author Kristyn Vitale of Oregon State University. "The majority of cats are securely attached to their owner and use them as a source of security in a novel environment."3

Past attachment research using the Secure Base Test (SBT), an abbreviated strange situation test, has shown that securely attached infants, primates and dogs behave similarly when reunited with their caregiver following a brief absence in an unfamiliar environment. When their caregiver reappears, they quickly return to relaxed exploration of their surroundings, whereas insecure individuals either cling excessively to or avoid the caregiver when he or she returns.

In the Oregon State study, adult cats and kittens from three to eight months of age spent two minutes in an unfamiliar room with their caregiver, followed by two minutes alone, followed by a two-minute reunion with the caregiver. The cats' responses to being reunited with their caregivers were classified into attachment styles (secure or insecure).

The researchers observed that cats bond in a way that's amazingly similar to infants. In humans, 65% of babies are securely attached to their caregiver, and this study showed that about 65% of both cats and kittens are securely bonded to their human.

Further, the findings show that cats' attachments to their people are stable and present in adulthood. According to Vitale, this social flexibility may have helped cats successfully adapt to living in human homes. The research team has now switched their focus to kittens and cats in animal shelters.

"We're currently looking at several aspects of cat attachment behavior, including whether socialization and fostering opportunities impact attachment security in shelter cats," Vitale said.

Earlier Study Suggests Cats Do NOT Form Secure Attachments to Humans

Interestingly, a small U.K. study published in 2015 concluded the opposite of the Oregon State study. For the U.K. study, two University of Lincoln researchers used an adapted-for-felines version of the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test (SST) to evaluate 20 cats and their caregivers.

Beyond the observation that the cats vocalized more when their owners left them with strangers than the other way around, the researchers found no other evidence to suggest the kitties had formed a secure attachment to their humans. From the study abstract:

"These results are consistent with the view that adult cats are typically quite autonomous, even in their social relationships, and not necessarily dependent on others to provide a sense of security and safety."4

My hunch is that these and other conflicting study results on the cat-human bond are a result of a general lack of research on all aspects of feline health, including the behavior of domesticated felines. Cats don't get nearly the research attention dogs do, which is why we know so much more about the way dogs think and interact with us.

A scarcity of scientific data on a particular subject can inspire researchers to "fill in the blanks" with individual life experiences and biases.

Attachment Theory Aside, Research Shows Cats Enjoy Interacting with Their Humans

In a 2017 study, a pair of U.S. university researchers concluded that cats actually seem to like humans a lot more than they let on.5 According to Phys.org:

"[The researchers] point out that cats may simply be misunderstood, noting that recent research has found that cats have complex socio-cognitive and problem-solving abilities.

They suggest further that the commonly held belief that cats are less reactive to social stimuli might be due to a lack of knowledge regarding the things that cats actually find stimulating."6

The researchers set out to determine what types of things stimulate cats, and to what degree. There were two groups of kitties involved — one group lived with families; the other group consisted of shelter cats. For the study, the cats were isolated for a few hours, after which they were presented with three items from one of four categories: food, scent, toy, and human interaction.

The researchers mixed up the items for the cats so they could better evaluate which they found most stimulating and determined the kitties' level of interest for a given stimulus by whether they went for it first, and how and how long they interacted with it.

The researchers observed a great deal of variability from one cat to the next, regardless of whether they lived in a home or a shelter. But overall, the cats preferred interacting with a human to all other stimuli, including food.

The kitties spent an average of 65% of their time during the experiment interacting with a person, leading the study authors to conclude that cats really do like being around their humans, despite how they might sometimes behave with them.