Or so PopSci would have you believe. That’s their take on behaviorist Kristyn Vitale’s Oregon State University study of the bonding styles of cats:
Both babies and dogs display the same basic attachment styles—secure or one of two types of insecure attachment—although they manifest differently in different species, Vitale says. Individuals with secure attachment are able to use their caregiver as a base and approach the world with confidence. Those who have avoidant-insecure attachment will try to stay away from their caregiver, because they don’t feel safe, and those with ambivalent-insecure attachment will go to their caregiver and demand attention, but not be able to use their caregiver as a source of genuine confidence.
For cats, “the biggest difference is that a secure cat can use their owners as a sense of security to explore out from, and an insecure cat can’t do that,” Vitale says.
To get a better look at how cats relate to people, Vitale and her colleagues had cat and kitten owners bring their pets to the laboratory, to a room they’d never seen before. Then they ran what’s known as the secure base test, which researchers use to study attachment in human babies, other primates, and dogs. “For two minutes, the owner and cat just sat in the room together,” says Vitale. Next, the owner left and the pet spent two minutes there alone. “That alone phase acts as a potential stressor to the cat,” she says. “What we see is how they then react to the owner returning.”
That reaction is the crux of the experiment, as it reveals how the cat thinks about their human. The researchers filmed the two minute period, then reviewed the clips with someone specially trained in identifying and recording the clinical signs of attachment, known as an “attachment coder.”
The researchers found that approximately 65 percent of both the cats and kittens studied displayed secure attachment to their human, meaning that when the human returned they didn’t display signs of stress and were content to divide their time between looking around and hanging out with their human. Those with an insecure attachment style, around 35 percent in both cases, were still stressed after their human returned and demanded excessive amounts of attention.
The researchers enrolled about half the kittens in a six-week training course, but found that working with their human didn’t change their attachment style.