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Study finds kittens bond with their human caregivers like babies do

They’re not as aloof as some think.

ByKatherine J. WuNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Now that's a purrfect pair. Image Credit: AkilinaWinner, iStock

In the 1960s, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth had a breakthrough.

The intimate bond between an infant and its caregiver, she realized, wasn’t an all-or-nothing relationship. All babies were “attached” to their caretakers—they just had different ways of doing it.

Curious about the roots of this behavior, Ainsworth devised a test to sort kids into categories. Her technique, called the Strange Situation, involved a series of trials in which an infant was temporarily separated from its mother in an unfamiliar room full of toys. Some babies would protest their parents’ absence, but were quickly consoled upon their return, greeting them with pleasure. These infants Ainsworth dubbed “securely” attached, playing on the idea that they seemed to use their caregivers as a secure base from which to explore their surroundings.

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Other infants, however, didn’t fare quite as well. These “insecurely” attached babies fell into one of two groups: “ambivalent” babies were initially clingy and anxious, exhibiting extreme distress upon separation and proving difficult to soothe afterward, while their “avoidant” counterparts seemed mostly indifferent to their parents, all but snubbing them when they returned.

Ainsworth died in 1999, three decades after she first published her findings on the Strange Situation. But were she still alive today, she might have been pleased to see that, in broad strokes, her original delineations have stood the test of time. Though the numbers differ a bit depending on cultural context and socioeconomic status, through the generations, most kids—roughly 60 percent—seem securely attached to their caregivers.

Here’s what Ainsworth probably didn’t see coming: The same could be true of kittens and their people.

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Cat got your heart? Image Credit: vladans, iStock

“A lot of people have these stereotypes about cats, that they’re aloof or solitary,” says Kristyn Vitale, an animal psychologist at Oregon State University. “But they [also] use their owners as a source of security when they’re stressed out.”

Vitale’s newest paper, published today in the journal Current Biology, may suggest exactly that. Using a version of the Strange Situation adapted for domesticated felines and their human companions, she and her colleagues have found that the majority of cats tested appear to establish a secure bond with their caretakers—similar to the way that babies (and dogs) do, they argue.

Compared to Ainsworth’s original 21-minute protocol, which involved seven phases and the addition of a third party to test the child’s reaction to the presence of a stranger, Vitale’s technique was brief. (“Long testing times don’t work too well with cats,” she says.)

The idea, however, was pretty much the same, with a cat assuming the role of the infant. In Vitale’s three-phase version, each of 79 kittens spent two minutes in a strange room with their caretakers. The humans then left for two minutes, before returning for a two-minute reunion.

An analysis of video footage revealed that, when stacking cats up against humans and dogs, the behavioral parallels are striking, Vitale says. Across species, roughly 60 percent of infants or pets fall into the “secure” camp. (With, of course, a few between-species differences: Whereas babies might reach eagerly for their parents, kittens rub up against their owners.)

The insecure felines in the study even segregated into distinguishable subcategories. Ambivalent kittens, for instance, became anxious attention seekers during their trials. “They were kind of glued to the owner’s lap, and engaged in a spinning behavior, almost like they couldn’t get comfortable,” she says.

Others were avoidant, and spent a lot of time shirking their owners’ touch—the sort of behavior cat critics might expect from these animals, Vitale points out. But to Vitale’s surprise, ambivalent kittens made up a whopping 84 percent of the insecure group, while avoidant kittens comprised just 12 percent.

Similar studies have been done in dogs, Vitale points out, and some of them have found far higher proportions of avoidant canines. Maybe that’s another piece of evidence that contradicts the idea that all cats have cold shoulders, she says.

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From left to right: Secure, ambivalent, and avoidant attachment styles in cats. Securely attached cats explore the study room confidently and draw comfort from their owners' presence. Ambivalent cats are extremely clingy and distressed when left alone. Avoidant cats mostly snub their owners. Image Credit: Kristyn Vitale, Oregon State University

A few kittens also fell into a fourth category researchers now know as “disorganized”—a newer descriptor, added ex post facto by Ainsworth’s graduate student Mary Main, for humans or animals who seem torn between approaching and avoiding their caretakers during testing. In babies, that can manifest in unusual behaviors, like jerking movements or bouts of freezing. Kittens in this category, on the other hand, seemed mostly indecisive.

It’s not totally clear how cats acquire their attachment (cattachment?) styles, Vitale says, but they seem to be pretty stable over time. After initial testing, about half the kittens in the study were enrolled in a six-week cat “kindergarten” that involved weekly, coached socialization trainings with their owners. More than 80 percent of them graduated displaying the same type of attachment to their people they did the first time around.

These patterns hint that a big part of attachment is innate—perhaps even genetic—and tied strongly to an animal’s personality, says Wailani Sung, a veterinary behaviorist at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who was not involved in the study.

That doesn’t discount the importance of environmental influences, though, Sung adds. Carlo Siracusa, a veterinary behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees, explaining that major events like trauma can still reshape a cat’s bond to its owner.

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Cats have their critics, but they can be extremely social creatures with humans and felines alike. Image Credit: yacobchuk, iStock

Siracusa also cautions against drawing too many parallels between babies and kittens, especially when interpreting the results of an experiment that was originally developed for humans. Pet owners and parents have a lot in common, but they’re not analogous—and other forays into cat attachment have yielded results that differ from Vitale’s, he points out. “We should be open-minded about the idea that there are other variables [at play],” Siracusa says.

Perhaps the same could be said for the original iteration of the Strange Situation, which wasn’t without its critics. Some researchers believe the test was too artificial to yield a full picture of attachment, which also hinges on positive experiences between babies and their caregivers. And, like many other psychological tropes at the time, attachment theory grew out of datasets based on fairly homogeneous populations of middle class Americans.

Still, Siracusa and Sung both praise the study for highlighting the social nature of cats—something that’s often underappreciated. Canines may hog the limelight in the field of pet psychology, Sung says. But felines, too, have fully realized personalities, she says, and are certainly capable of forming close relationships with people.

“Sometimes we fight the [notion] that cats are asocial...and they get poor reputations from that,” she says. “Hopefully this makes people think deeper about their cats, and see them in a better light.”

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