A study released by the University of Lincoln concluded that cats, unlike dogs, do not need humans to feel safe, preferring to look after themselves.
Earlier research had suggested cats show signs of separation anxiety when left alone by their owners, in the same way dogs do, but the results of this study found they are much more independent than canine companions – and what we had interpreted as separation anxiety might actually be signs of frustration.
To find out if cats needed their owner to feel secure, the researchers observed how 20 cats reacted when they were placed in an unfamiliar environment with their owner, with a stranger or on their own.
The study monitored the amount of contact the cat sought, the level of passive behavior, and signs of distress caused by the absence of the owner.
Although the cats were more vocal when the owner left them with the stranger, there was no evidence to suggest the bond between a cat and its owner is one of secure attachment.
This vocalization might simply be a sign of frustration or learned response, since no other signs of attachment were reliably seen.
In strange situations, attached individuals seek to stay close to their care giver, show signs of distress when they are separated and demonstrate pleasure when their attachment figure returns, but these trends were not apparent in this research.
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.
Although the researchers say cats can still develop bonds with, and show affection for their owners, the new study found that cats just don’t need us humans in the same way dogs do.
However, cat expert Celia Haddon, author of Cats Behaving Badly and How to Read Your Cat’s Mind, said owners should not feel that their pets do not love them.
“This study shows that cats do not need their humans to feel safe, they don’t depend on us, they look after themselves. If they are scared, a cat won’t come to its owner, it will jump on top of the wardrobe or hide under the bed,” she said.
“But in a way that’s a real compliment. Cats won’t live in an unhappy home, they’ll just walk out. And abandoned or feral cats get on just fine on their own.
“Cats are not pack animals; they don’t depend on other cats. So they are not going to depend on their owners. But it doesn’t mean they don’t want to be around their owners. This study shows that they really do.”
Alice Potter, cat behavior and well-being expert at the RSPCA, who was also one of the study authors, said the study could help owners meet the needs of their pets.
“It suggests that if a cat is scared or has been involved in an incident, it’s not going to want a cuddle, it’s going to want to go and hide, so owners need to provide a place for that to happen,” she said,
“Likewise an owner shouldn’t worry if their cat doesn’t want to be comforted. It’s just doing what comes naturally.” The study was published in the journal PLOS One.