Rose Webster on Paw Mane Fin / All rights reservedThis week, I felt a little déjà vu when I read an article in The Washington Post by Elahe Izadi called Your cat might not really care about you, study suggests. Earlier this year, I read (and viewed) similar reports about studies conducted on cats.
On April 18th, 2015 I published a rubuttal to the findings of researchers at the University of London that indicate "cats don't look to humans for guidance in unfamiliar situations." I highlighted numerous "flaws" that were pointed out by others, including cat researcher John Bradshaw.
So, when I examined the PLOS ONE research study Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners published on September 2nd, 2015 by Alice Potter and Daniel Simon Mills, I found several glaring issues.
Adapted Version of the SST Not Suitable for Cats
I feel that articles written about this study are not relaying what the researchers have already concluded: alternative methods need to be developed to characterize the normal psychological features of the cat-owner bond.
Donnie Ray Jones on flickr / CC-by-2.0In the abstract, the researchers state they used an "adapted version" of the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test (SST).
It is a test that is widely regarded as accurate in studies involving children and dogs.
As noted in my article Ever Wonder What Your Cat Thinks of You?:
Jennifer Viegas (who wrote Cats Don't Actually Ignore Us) explained that cats remain stoic in unfamiliar situations (when they feel vulnerable) because "in the wild, no one can rescue them and predators pay attention to such weak individuals."
I think it's fair to say that children and dogs need a "leader." Cats, on the other hand, have evolved to be independent (which doesn't mean that they aren't attached to their owners).
Only 20 Cat-Owner Pairs Were Studied
I cannot think of any studies deemed conclusive that involved only twenty subjects. And, I was astounded to learn that "nineteen of the cats had regular access to the outside."
I think an "outdoor" cat would not be representative of the typical cat owner. Most cats (at least in my area of Toronto) are "indoor" cats. And indoor cats have more opportunities to become attached to their owners. (And for the same basic reasons that dogs and children do – food and shelter).
An outdoor cat will find shelter elsewhere and hunt for food, as this is their intrinsic nature.
And as I read through the details of how this study was carried out, I had to chuckle at this statement: "Two females of similar height, build and appearance were used as the stranger (one for each condition)." I highly doubt that there is enough similarity in these conditions to deem these results reliable. Two females of similar "shape" isn't enough to fool a cat.
Why? Because cats assess humans on a completely different level than us. Cats can smell far better than us, they notice body language we are oblivious to, and I even feel they "sense" intentions. (My personal proof was when my home was broken into and my "stranger-friendly" cats hid).
Of course, when I read: "Any cat subjects who remained in the hiding place throughout the experimental testing procedures were removed from the data analysis, since they provided no useful data."
Hmm, could this mean that these cats were indeed "attached" to their owners?
Two Cats Hid Leaving Only 18 For Data Analysis
The results section of the study states:
"Two cat subjects (1 male neutered, 6 years old, 1 female neutered 2 years old) hid during an entire experimental testing period and were therefore removed from the data analysis."
And to the authors credit, they conclude there is "widespread inconsistency" in the cat’s [sic] behaviour across the two conditions." (I think they meant cats' behaviours).
And thankfully, they added:
"This highlights the need to assess the scientific reliability of these behaviours, since behaviours that are inconsistent cannot be used to reliably assess supposedly stable traits such as attachment."
Why is the Media Reporting "Cats Don't Care" Then?
I'm stumped. When I read the research study, it clearly states that there is insufficient data and too many inconsistencies to draw any conclusions.
However, in an attempt to garner some value from a study (that I know took a lot of time and patience to carry out), here are some key points:
- Cats do not form the same attachment bonds with their owners (for safety and security) that children or dogs display.
- Cats do appear to have a different relationship with their owner compared to a stranger, but the extent of which it may be conditioned is unknown.
Of course, anyone who has lived with cats, children, or dogs would probably tell you the same thing.
So, rather than the study title "Cats Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners" a more appropriate one would be "We Are Unable to Measure How Attached Cats Are to Their Owners."