Sep 29, 2013
Attachment in Cats
Feline Versions of the Strange Situation Test
There's a famous psychological experiment called the Strange Situation Test. The Strange Situation Test was developed by Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s to examine attachment between a mother and baby. The steps1 are:
Ainsworth came up with three categories of attachment with a fourth type later added by different researches. These four categories are now described as:
Now having a creature who shares my life who I think is fascinating and worth studying, my cat Trilby Kitty, I was curious to see what the results were when the Strange Situation Test was done with cats and their owners. That dog Strange Situation Test was done in 1996, almost twenty years ago, so plenty of time for the test to be adapted to cats.
After Miklósi did the attachment study on dogs, he did try the Strange Situation Test on cats but couldn't get the test to work with cats. Well, the guy is the founder of the Family Dog Project, so it's not too surprising he couldn't figure out how to get the test to work with cats. (Though Miklósi did say he suspected that cats bonded with their owners like dogs do.)3 It took eleven years after Miklósi successfully did his Strange Situation Test with dogs before someone managed to successfully do the Strange Situation Test with cats. It was done by four veterinarians which backs up my point if you're going to test cats you need people who know cats. The summary of what they found was "These results are consistent with the ones obtained by Ainsworth in children attached to their mothers; therefore, it can be said that cats can manifest attachment behaviors toward their owners. Further studies are indicated to see whether cats can develop separation anxiety."4,5
It was and wasn't surprising to me that it took eleven years for someone to do a Strange Situation Test with cats. It's surprising because as soon as I'd heard it had been done with dogs, seeing the test results with cats was the very first thought that went through my head.6 But it wasn't surprising to me that it took eleven years because there are such cultural assumptions about cats.7 Cats are independent. Cats are aloof. Cats are self-reliant. And on and on. Attachment in cats? Cats don't have owners; cats have staff. You'd think all those YouTube videos would have broadened the public perception of cats and their relationships with their owners. But the only people whose perceptions have been broadened are those of us who have the cats.........
Yes, Trilby Kitty and I go for nightly walks where he follows me off-leash. Yes, Trilby (usually) comes when I call him. Yes, Trilby is happy to see me and greets me with affection (normally). Yes, Trilby understands my pointed finger. Yes, Trilby knows "stay" and will (sometimes) "stay" when I tell him (okay, make that rarely, but he does do it). Yes, Trilby Kitty is faithful, devoted, affectionate and loves me above all others even to the point he is willing to sacrifice his wants for mine (a lot of the time). And if that doesn't sound like a cat to you, you should spend more time around cats getting to know them as individuals. Because though Trilby Kitty is unique to me, he's not unique. Every trait my cat has, other cats also have ---- though not necessarily the majority of cats.
And, yes, Trilby Kitty would react to the Strange Situation Test by demonstrating that he is a securely attached cat, the same as a securely attached baby or a securely attached dog. Actually Trilby Kitty and I do our own version of the Strange Situation Test almost every night when we go walking. Recall that the first critical element of a secure attachment is the attachee uses the attachor as a base for exploration.........
Trilby Kitty is an indoor-outdoor cat. As much as possible, I arrange things so he's free to come and go as he pleases. I don't have a cat door. (I really wish I did.) But weather permitting, I rig a door so it will only open enough for Trilby to come & go. If the cat decided he didn't want to live with me, there's nothing stopping him from walking away. A cat with unfettered access to the outdoors is the epitome of a saying that was popular on posters back in the 1970s, "If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it is yours. If it doesn't, it never was." Trilby's mine..........by his choice.
Most nights Trilby and I go for a walk. If he's outside, I go out and call him and he'll come home to me from half a block away and is happy to see me. Then we go for the walk. Trilby, being outside, could have done this walk anytime. Theoretically, he doesn't need me to walk the block. Practically speaking, he will not do that walk without me.
During the walk if I get too far ahead of Trilby, he will meow to let me know I'm too far out of his comfort range and for me to wait for him or to walk back closer to him. I can tell how anxious he is by the volume and tone of his cries. When Trilby goes off to explore something or to use the bathroom, frequently he lets me know he's going to "disappear" by meowing softly to me so I'll know to stop and wait for him. He will even do his own form of sonar/echo location while he's "disappeared" ---- he'll meow to me and I'll respond with a matching sound. He'll do this repeatedly while I'm out of his sight and each time I'll answer. It's his way of knowing where I'm at and that I haven't left him. On the occasions where Trilby forgets to do this when he disappeared and I've kept on walking, I'll hear frantic, loud meows from behind me as Trilby does a fast trot to catch up to me. Those cries are cat language for "Wait for me! Wait for me! I'm here! Don't leave me, Momma Cat!"8
One of the interesting things about our version of the Strange Situation Test is that Trilby's comfort range is not a fixed distance. It's a larger distance when we're in Trilby home range9 which isn't surprising. But it also varies by whether we are going out for the walk or coming back from the walk. When we're walking away from home, Trilby's comfort range is smaller than when we're walking back home.
There's another version of the Strange Situation Test that we do. Trilby Kitty will go into my neighbors' houses (assuming they let him in which most will not). But he will only go into their houses if I'm there and will only stay as long as he knows I'm there. There are kind neighbors down the street who love animals including Trilby and are always happy to have Trilby visit. Trilby explores their house and remembers watching birds eating seeds on their porch through their sliding glass door. One time they offered to keep Trilby while I finished my walk as Trilby was comfortably stretched out on his side taking a nap, but I said as soon as Trilby knew I was gone he'd would not stay --- he'd want out. I know that from experience. My next door neighbor is one of Trilby's favorite people. When he misses her, Trilby will lead me over to her house and beg me to get her by scratching at her door. He knows what it means when I ring her doorbell. Occasionally, she'll let Trilby in her house while we talk. Again Trilby explores the house before settling down. Once Trilby was comfortably sleeping in the chair in her guest bedroom so I decided to leave him there. He kept on sleeping as I left quietly. But as soon as he woke up and realized I was gone, he wanted out the door. Strange situations are okay as long as his Momma Cat is with him.
This is a cat who uses me as a base for his exploration and is happy to see me. Trilby's reactions are clear evidence of attachment.
An essential element of the Scientific Method is repeatability. The cat Strange Situation Experiment was only done one time and with a small sample size (28 cats).4 What was discovered in the mother-baby Strange Situation Test (which has been repeated across the world) is that there are different types of attachment. And cats have different types of attachment. Trilby is an example of a securely attached cat. But a barn cat with little bond to its owner is going to have a different reaction than a pampered pussy who sleeps on the owner's pillow. So if someone wanted to study attachment types in mammals, cats are a great subject for that.
1 Attachment Measures, Wikipedia (accessed Sep 2013)
2 John Homans, What's a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2012) pp 53-58.
3 Scientists Prove Dogs Are Better than Cats, Big Studios (accessed Sep 2013)
4 Claudia Edwards, Moisés Heiblum, Alberto Tejeda, Francisco Galindo, Experimental evaluation of attachment behaviors in owned cats, (Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research Volume 2, Issue 4 , July 2007) pp 119-125 (abstract accessed Sep 2013)
5 Lynda Birke, ed.,, Jo Hockenhull, ed., Crossing Boundaries: Investigating Human-Animal Relationships, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2012) pp 180-1 (accessed Sep 2013)
Although I could only read the abstract from the journal article, more details about the Strange Situation Test adapted for cats were included in the book, so I quote the relevant paragraph:
"The next most obvious choice was the second most popular companion animal, the cat. Edwards, et al. (2007) claimed that similarly to dogs adult cats show attachment behaviors toward their caregivers in the Strange Situation Test (N=28). Indeed, significant differences were found in the cats' behaviours in the presence of their caregiver and a stranger. Cats spent more time in contact with their caregiver and spent more time near the door in the presence of the stranger. They were also more active/explorative in the presence of the caregiver, although this could be simply due to the order effect present in the procedure. More importantly, cats showed characteristically different social-affiliative behaviors toward human participants in comparison with dogs (and wolves). Cats did not play at all with the stranger, their physical contact was also extremely rare with the stranger and the behavior manifestations of separation anxiety in cats were not easy to observe (if any). In general it seems that cats were either stressed much more because of the unfamiliar environment or accepted the stranger less during the procedure which could significantly modify the test results."
(Which, quite frankly, is what any cat person would have told you was going to happen. But at least it's been scientifically proven.)
6 Someone should try this with house rabbits. They'll find out that house rabbits have attachment the same as babies, dogs or cats. Though you're going to need someone who understands rabbits ---- and not lab rabbits, house rabbits, to do the test. Bonding's bonding. A bonded animal is going to be more comfortable with its caretaker than with a stranger. My house rabbit educated opinion is that's going to be especially true of small, prey animal like a bonded rabbit. The difficult part would be to come up with the bonded house rabbits because it's not enough that a rabbit is kept in the house, it has to be treated like a dog or cat, with free run, lots of affection and in a situation where the rabbit forms a primary attachment with a person. I've had rabbits who did that, and I've had rabbits who didn't.
7 The stereotypes of cats exist even among vets. From Dr. Bruce R. Coston, D.V.M., who didn't change his mind about cats until he had one:
"For the first time, I completely understood my cat-owning clients. No longer were they a mystery to me. I discarded as fallacious my previous delusions about cats as pets. Gone was the idea that only dogs were worthy of our affections. No longer did I subscribe to the notion that cats are less dependent than dogs, or that they are less bonded to their owners. Abandoned was the perception that cats are indifferent or diffident to human existence, or that they interact with humans solely for their utilitarian purposes. Cats could indeed hold the same place in the human heart as do dogs. Ollie, my black male cat had seen to that." Bruce R. Coston, Ask the Animals, (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2009) pp 80-81
8 After years of wanting to deny it, I've finally accepted the fact that Trilby Kitty sees me as his mother. (He's the first pet I've ever had who felt that way. I've been seen as a mate or a peer, but never, before Trilby, as a mother.) We breed our pets for neoteny (retention of juvenile characteristics in an adult), and Trilby is definitely a case of that. I suspect he was neutered young as he had no adult male characteristics when he came to me. (He didn't even spray the first few years I had him though a couple of years he started spraying the bushes.) And relatively speaking the sizes are correct ---- I'm about the same size to the adult Trilby that his actual mother was to him when he was a kitten. I expect when I pet him he thinks his mother is grooming him. So I have a cat who thinks I'm his mother. I say Trilby's my baby though he's not my child. And he's most definitely my family.
9 "The home range is the area that the cat lives in, and the territory is the area which she defends. The territory is normally smaller than the home range." The territory of outdoor cats, Know Your Cat, (2006, accessed Sep 2013) Interestingly enough, Trilby Kitty will defend an area that I'm in even when it's outside his territory ---- another cat in my presence is enough to elicit aggression from Trilby. Though I've never been sure if it's because Trilby doesn't want the other cat near me or if my presence gives him the courage to be aggressive toward the other cat or some combination of both.
For more about cat psychology (or the psychology of one cat, Trilby Kitty), read........
"The Devotion of a Cat"
"In the Mind of a Sleeping Cat"
"Cat Thinking -- The Day My Legs Turned Blue"
"His Person's Voice or A Cat Who Will Come When Called"
"The Tree and the Cat"
"You!! The Song of the Domesticated Cat" (fair warning, this one's a poem)
"10 Reasons Why the Best "Boyfriend" I've Ever Had Is My Cat"
"The Suburban Wilds" in which Trilby Kitty plays a minor role
If you have a cat (or a dog) you should read, "7 Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your Pet's Food."
For non-cat pieces, please take a moment to look through the Archive.