Researchers Alice Potter and Daniel Simon Mills recently published a study looking at a test used to measure attachment in cats with their owners. Potter and Mills were seeking to compare attachment styles of dogs and cats to humans and recruited 20 cats and their owners to take part. The experiment calls for an attached pair to be placed in a new and strange environment, separates the two, introduces a stranger, then reunites the pair and evaluates what behaviors happen at each turn. Attachment in the test used is shown when an individual strives to remain close to the other, is upset when unintentionally separated, pleased when reunited, returns to the other when frightened and feels safe enough to explore in the others presence.
The use of this test, commonly known as the “Strange Situation Test” or “SST” was first developed in the 1950s to measure how attached infants were to their mothers. The test was subsequently used with chimpanzees and has been very popular in studies with dogs. Researchers drawn to the similarity of the bond/dependence existing between the domestic dog and the owner and an infant and the mother have found parallel results in attachment levels. This no doubt contributes to how well the Strange Situation Test works with both sets of species. But how cats encounter their environment along with the differences in how they establish relationships impacts how useful the Strange Situation Test is to measure how attached they are to their owners.
In the Potter and Mills study the cats were not found to respond with the same behaviors as infants and dogs to the Strange Situation Test. This does not prove that cats are not attached to their humans rather that the test is not a useful one for feline attachment to people. Cats and dogs are both social animals and both have developed successful domestic relationships with humans but how they live in a natural environment and with people is markedly different.
The test used starts with placing an attached pair in a new and strange environment. For the Strange Situation Test to be an effective one there has to be a level of stress and discomfort in an unknown environment. And in order to successfully compare attachment in new environment there needs to be a similar level of stress and discomfort as a starting point to the new environment. However, there is a serious difference between stressed and terrified. Stressed allows for comforting and terrified calls for survival first and foremost (think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where safety comes before social). Terrified and survival strategies are what a new environment means for most cats, that’s why in shelters and re-homing we provide cats with beds, boxes and places to hide.
A new environment for cats is akin to a four alarm fire. Cats are seriously territorial and owned cats are famously under socialized to places they are not housed in or choose to frequent on their own terms (even cats given access to the outdoors roam in a specific and familiar territory close to home). New environments are serious stuff and need much time and vigilance to acclimate to. Francis Galton, scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin, writing on cats and domestication, noted that: “The cat is the only non-gregarious domestic animal. It is retained by its extra-ordinary adhesion to the comforts of the house in which it is reared.”
It is difficult if not impossible to measure a degree of natural behavior, including natural social behavior, when extreme vigilance is needed to encounter a new environment. In a 2013 study showing cats’ abilities to recognize their owner’s voices, the author position their choice of conducting the study in the home environment because: “Visiting owners’ homes allowed us to observe the cats’ natural behaviors which might be disrupted in a laboratory because of vigilance against a novel place.” What is further interesting to note is that the Potter and Mills study finds the greatest behaviors that the cats display in the test to be ones where the cats are scanning the new environment or sniffing the air while still or actively exploring it and moving around in it. These behaviors are not described as vigilance because according to the authors they are apparently not accompanied by fully open eyes or ear flicking. One concern is then, how vigilance is defined (and this concern is not confined to this study). A strong argument can be made that the study cats were in fact vigilant while they scanned the environment or moved around in it. Additionally it can then be said that vigilance occupied much of their time to ascertain the safety of this new space and which precluded the display of other social behaviors that would occur in a familiar setting.
Looking at how cats relate to human beings as distinctive species is a worthwhile and valuable endeavor. In order to do well with it we have to measure the natural behavior of the cat as a unique species and not as a feline version of a dog. That never works.
-Potter, A., Mills, D.S. (2015). Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners. PLos ONE.
-Saito, A., Shinozuka, K. (2013). Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus). Animal Cognition.
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"Looking at how cats relate to human beings as distinctive species is a worthwhile and valuable endeavor. In order to do well with it we have to measure the natural behavior of the cat as a unique species and not as a feline version of a dog. That never works."
Like us on Facebook!
Questions? Like an individual consultation? Contact us