Domestic cats do not generally see their owners as a focus of safety and security in the same way that dogs do, according to new research.
The study by animal behaviour specialists at the University of Lincoln, UK, shows that while dogs perceive their owners as a safe base, the relationship between people and their feline friends appears to be quite different.
While it is increasingly recognised that cats are more social and more capable of shared relationships than traditionally thought, the latest research shows that adult cats appear to be more autonomous – even in their social relationships – and not necessarily dependent on others to provide a sense of protection.
“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,” said Daniel Mills, Professor at Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, who led the study with Alice Potter, who now works at Companion Animals Science Group at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
“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,” said Mills.
The researchers carefully adapted the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test (SST), which has been widely used to demonstrate that the bond between young children or pet dogs with their primary carer can be categorised as a ‘secure attachment’ – where the carer is seen as a focus of safety and security in potentially threatening (or unfamiliar) environments.
The study observed the relationships between a number of cats and their owners, placing the pets in an unfamiliar environment together with their owner, with a stranger and also on their own.
In varying scenarios, it assessed three different characteristics of attachment; the amount of contact sought by the cat, the level of passive behaviour, and signs of distress caused by the absence of the owner.
The results showed that while cats might prefer to interact with their owner, they do not rely on them for reassurance when in an unfamiliar environment, and the researchers believe this is because of the nature of the species as a largely independent and solitary hunter.
The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.