Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Reading with a kitten in his arms, filming indoors
Reading with a kitten in his arms, filming indoors

Cats do bond with people

Both cats and kittens showed about the same level of attachment to caregivers as children and dogs did

Some researchers were surprised to discover that cats bond with their humans. They ran an experiment that tests bonding in small children on kittens and here’s what happened:

These experiments show that about 65% of human children are ‘securely attached’ to their caregivers.

When Vitale and her team ran a similar experiment with 70 kittens, 64.3% approached their owners and gazed at or nuzzled them. These animals were categorized as securely attached. A follow-up experiment involving 38 older cats found that nearly the same proportion were securely attached. Maybe our cats actually love us after all — or most of them do, anyhow.

Cats truly bond to their people” at Nature

Paper. (open access)

The same pattern was found, not surprisingly, in dogs. We are offered some qualifications with respect to cats:

… Vitale cautions that the experiment doesn’t tell us much about whether cats “like” or “dislike” their owners—only that many seem to look to humans for security when they feel stressed out. Daniel Mills, an expert in veterinary behavioural medicine at the University of Lincoln who was not involved in the research, tells the Guardian’s Nicola Davis that it’s also hard to know whether the cats’ responses were particular to their individual owners, or whether they were simply finding comfort in a human presence. The new study, after all, did not test how the cats responded to a stranger.

But as Vitale points out, it would make sense for domesticated cats to have developed attachments to the humans who care for them. “In both dogs and cats, attachment to humans may represent an adaptation of the offspring-caretaker bond,” she says. “Attachment is a biologically relevant behavior.”

Brigit Katz, “Even Shy Cats Are Bonded to Their Human Caregivers” at Smithsonian Magazine

But the qualifications actually demonstrate the point. Domestic cats bond with humans because they are taken at an early age from the kitty mommy who looked after their every need. As the kitten continues to grow, he expects the humans who adopted him to replace her by feeding and protecting him, and helping him keep warm. Why wouldn’t he? And he certainly does not need reasoning powers to be well aware of the value of that relationship and the need to hang onto it.

Whether he “likes” or “dislikes” his humans is beside the point. Did he “like” Kitty Mommy? Would it even occur to him to form an opinion?

Cats are often charged with being “aloof” and“contrary,” and “not especially social.” But aloofness and contrariness are human concepts and “social” requires some nuance. All these terms assume that the cat is thinking about things that he is not, in fact, thinking about. In reality, he does not have a rich inner life, full of complex, abstract opinions. There is a much simpler but adequate explanation for his behavior.

The cat is neither a pack animal nor a herd animal. Thus he is not inclined by necessity toward submission or leadership. He is a small predator who senses that he must defend the territory that affords him a living. He can certainly learn to live peacefully with other cats in a household but that means negotiating complex territorial arrangements (Tabby’s chair, Cinnamon’s sofa, etc.)

Fortunately, he is used to that. When he was a kitten, he probably had his own teat, as did his littermates. That minimizes energy-wasting strife among the kittens while helping them develop a sense of territory. In a new home, if he has solved basic problems like feeling secure, he develops relationships that he can manage with humans and dogs. But he won’t be either your servant or your master; just your housemate—and at last your old friend.

Cat behavior is sometimes misinterpreted because we oscillate between expecting the cat to reason like a human (he won’t) and thinking that he is a zombie (he isn’t). He lacks reason but has plenty of appetites so, like a dog, he can learn from consistent reward and reproof.

For example, earlier this year, researchers reported—to the surprise of many—that cats can recognize their names. But the idea should not surprise us. If a cat can recognize a specific footstep on the stairs, why couldn’t he recognize his name when it is shouted?

He recognizes his name as a signal, not as an abstraction. That is, he does not know it is his “name.” But he does know something that concerns him will usually happen when he hears that sound.

Could the cat learn to recognize other cats’ names? Let’s tweak the question a bit: Under what circumstances would knowing that a sound is a signal for another cat make a difference to him? It is surely possible to design an experiment to test that. Suppose one cat likes only hard kibble and the other likes only soft food. If a researcher consistently used the two names as signals for the specific rewards on offer, it would perhaps be more surprising if they didn’t catch on after a while. Cats, of course, recognize each other by smell and other sensory cues.

An amazing number of entertaining cartoons portray cats as furry little people; when we look at the real feline, we must get used to a quite different way of seeing the world.


Study: Cats do recognize their names. They recognize them as signals but not as abstractions.

and

Can animals reason? My challenge to Jeffrey Shallit (Michael Egnor)


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Cats do bond with people