Even though cats are often stereotyped into having a "take them or leave them" attitude towards humans, it's clear that cats can also be very closely bonded with their caretakers. One of the reasons for this is that cats hide their emotions more than other species. Just think about how easy it is to tell if a dog is happy — feed them, pet them, heck, even just look at them, and their tails start wagging. But cats pretty much look and act the same no matter what we do. And if cats are stressed, they tend to withdraw, hide, and become quiet.
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Cats love their owners
A new study looked at how an owner's presence affected stress in cats. It also examined the owner's scent. Turns out, cats displayed less stress behavior when in the company of their owner. And, an object that smelled like the cat's owner wasn't enough by itself.
The study, called "The Effect of Owner Presence and Scent on Stress Resilience in Cats," was published in the October 2021 edition of the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The researchers studied the Secure Base Effect, or SBE, in cats. This effect refers to feeling secure because the person or animal feel safe exploring their environment because they know that they have a caretaker to return to who will take care of them and provide them a "secure base."
SBE is well-studied in dogs. A 2016 article published in the journal PLOS One explains that dogs don't just feel affection for or attachment to their owners. Instead, they actually rely on us to provide a "secure base" which allows them to explore, and is considered to be very much like an infant-caregiver relationship.
The Secure Base Effect (SBE) in cats
A 2015 study also published in PLOS One, called "Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners," concluded well, just that — cats do not seem to experience SBE. Cat owners know that's not true though, right? Well, a follow up study in done by researchers at Oregon State University's Human-Animal Interaction Lab agrees. Their 2019 study, "Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans," published in the journal Current Biology, reveals that cats display distinct attachment behaviors toward their owners.
This new study was a follow up to that one, and confirmed the findings. These attachment and bonding tests are usually conducted in what is called a "strange situation." This means the cat is introduced into a new location or new situation, both with and without their owners, to see how they react. For this study, cats were given an object that smelled like their owners. Scent objects have been shown to produce an SBE effect in humans, but had never been studied in cats before.
To test the power of the scent object, first the owners interacted with the cats in the testing room for two minutes, then left the room. For half the cats, the scent object was placed where the owner had previously been sitting. For half the cats, the owners returned to the room. Then, the roles were switched, so that if the owners returned, the cat was given the scent object and if the scent object was provided, the owners returned.
The importance of scent in cats
We know that scent is incredibly important to the early development of cats. When kittens are first born they cannot see or hear. It's only the scent of their mother that guides them, until their other senses start to more fully develop. For this study, the researchers asked whether the scent of the owner would reduce cat anxiety in an unfamiliar environment, and to what extent this might be related to whether the cat showed evidence of using their owner as a Secure Base.
They studied 42 adult cats with the owner present, without the owner present, and with a scent object present. On average, cats displayed less stress-related behaviors when the owner was present, which seems to support the theory of SBE. This effect was not shown when the cat was alone with the scent object, though. The cats showed the lowest stress (examined through rubbing, vocalizations, etc.) when the owners returned to the room. The scent object alone didn't show stress reduction or evidence of SBE. The data suggests that cats do use their human owners as a secure base.
One interesting effect revealed that when the cats got the owners first then the scent object (as opposed to the scent object and then the owners), more cats showed evidence of SBE. Cats who got the scent object first were separated from their owners for a longer period of time (6 minutes as opposed to 2 minutes), which may have influenced their behavior and resulted in higher stress. Maybe having the scent of the owner, but not access to the actual owner, caused the cats more stress?
It's not likely that we'll ever know how much cats really rely on us or what they think of us. It would be logical to expect that the scent of an owner would result in a sense of calm, even if the owner isn't there. But in the cat's mind, this isn't what happened.
In this study, evidence of a cat being more calm only appeared when the actual owner was present. Having just the scent object wasn't enough. Maybe the cat is smart enough to know that the object is not the same as having the owner nearby, and they just don't feel as secure unless the owner is there. It's hard to say what the cat really thinks. This study, however, does show that cats are truly bonded to their humans and recognize when we're not there.
- Applied Animal Behaviour Science: The Effect of Owner Presence and Scent on Stress Resilience in Cats
- PLOS One: The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs – Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task
- PLOS One: Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners
- current Biology: Attachment Bonds Between Domestic Cats and Humans