Dogs have owners, cats have staff.
Though the old joke is a stereotype of a feline's independent nature, that trope may have some scientific backing.
Cats do not form the childlike dependence on humans that dogs do, new research suggests.
That doesn't mean people's feline friends don't bond with them, said Daniel Mills, a veterinary behavioral medicine researcher at the University of Lincoln in England.
"This is not about whether cats love their owners," Mills told Live Science. Rather, it just means that Felis catus doesn't look to its human owners as a source of safety and security, he added. [Here, Kitty, Kitty: 10 Facts for Cat Lovers]
The new results are based on a test called the "Strange Situation." In the test, which was developed for humans by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s, researchers put a mother or primary caregiver and a baby in one room together and then asked the mother to leave as a stranger walked in to play. Ainsworth found that some tots would play joyfully while their caregiver was around, act fearful or distressed when the caregivers left, and then act happy when the mother figure returned. Those little ones were "securely attached," Ainsworth said, meaning they saw their mom as a "safe base" from which to explore the world. By contrast, some youngsters seemed indifferent to their moms' presence and absence, while others were tentative when approaching a returning mom, and still others showed a very erratic response.
Securely attached infants tend to do better in school, relationships and life in general than those with other forms of attachment, scientists have found.
A study published in 2013 in the journal PLOS ONE found that dogs similarly cling to their owners as a haven of safety when a threatening stranger is near. The researchers concluded that, just like human babies, these little fur babies could become securely attached to their caregivers. A small 2002 study suggested that cats could develop separation anxiety, but the findings weren't carefully verified.
To see whether cats showed a similar puplike attachment, Mills and his colleague Alice Potter, who now researches companion animals at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England, put cats in the equivalent of the Strange Situation. In the new study, owners left the cats in a room and a stranger then entered and tried to engage the kitties in play. The researchers selected cats whose owners said they were particularly attached to them.
Overall, cats lived up to their fickle reputation; they had quite variable behavior.
"The idea of developing behavior tests in cats is much harder than people perhaps realize," Mills said. Researchers may "do a test and say, 'Oh, this is the cat's profile.' If you do the test on a cat a few weeks or a few hours later, it's different."
The felines also showed no clear signs of attachment, other than slightly more frequent meows when the owner left them with the stranger, the researchers reported Wednesday (Sept. 2) in the journal PLOS ONE.
However, those meows could have been signs of frustration, a conditioned response, as cats tend to meow more if their owners chat with them, Mills said. The results suggest that, unlike dogs, cats don't look to owners as a sort of security blanket. [Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs?]
Love among equals?
Ask any cat person, however, and they would swear that Mr. Whiskers does love them. They may be right, Mills said. The new findings simply mean cats don't see their human companions as parentlike figures. For instance, in the Strange Situation test, parents don't form a secure attachment to their babies because they don't see their children as a "safe base" — but it would be wildly inaccurate to say that parents don't love their kids. It may simply be that feline-human love is rooted in something other than dependence.
It's also possible that cats simply don't wear their emotions on their fur, so to speak, and that another test might better gauge their attachment to owners, Mills said.
Still, he thinks the findings do reflect a truth about cats' independence.
"If you think about it, why should cats depend on people for safety and security?" Mills said. "Cats are naturally very independent hunters."
By contrast, dogs hunt in packs, and so may naturally gravitate toward others when looking to meet their needs, he added.