Science is slowly approaching proof of what many cat lovers already know: Cats form close bonds with their owners or other chosen special people.
By watching cat behavior, you can learn a lot about feline relationships with the humans in their lives. And, if you have a new cat, that can help you learn to evaluate your progress bonding, says Pamela J. Perry, DVM, PhD, behavior resident at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Hanging With the Humans
A 2017 study published in Behavioural Processes (Vitale Shreve, KR, et al, Social interaction, food, scent or toys? A formal assessment of domestic pet and shelter cat preferences, Behav Processes. 2017 Aug; 141 [pt 3]:322-328) looked at what cats prefer to interact with. Their options were human interaction, food, toys, or scent. Most cats chose interaction with humans. Food was the runner-up. This study used both pet cats with owners and shelter cats.
Bonds That Cats Form
A 2019 study (Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans. Vitale KR, et al. Current Biology 2019;29:R859–R865) looked at how cats responded to an attachment test that has been used in humans, other primates, and dogs. The study used both cats and kittens and had them go through a Secure Base Test (SBT) with their owners.
For the test, each cat or kitten was brought into a room they had never seen before along with their owner. Cat and owner were together in the room for two minutes, then the owner left for two minutes. They were reunited for two minutes. The SBT classifies attachment styles as secure or insecure. Insecure attachments are further broken down into ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized (see the sidebar for descriptions of each attachment style).
The study looked at 70 kittens ages 3 to 8 months and 38 adult cats over 1-year-old. Of the kittens, 64.3% were classified as securely attached to their owners. Of the 35.7% that were insecurely attached, most showed ambivalent attachment behaviors. Of the adult cats, 65.8% were found to have a secure attachment and 34.2% insecure, similar to the kitten results.
The kittens were then retested six weeks later, after half of them went through a training and socialization intervention. The results remained consistent, with 68.6% of the kittens showing secure attachment and 31.4% showing insecure attachment.
Is My Cat Bonded to Me?
“Cats who are attached to their humans will solicit attention from them by approaching them (often with a tail held straight up), meowing or pawing at them, etc.,” says Dr. Perry. “They also tend to ‘follow’ their owners from room to room, albeit sometimes at a distance. Purring and head rubbing or bunting you are other signs that your kitty enjoys your presence. In addition, many cat owners cherish the ‘slow blink,’ during which a cat stares at you and slowly squints or closes her eyes, as a sign of affection.” If your cat is vocal, she may greet you with a chirp or meow when you enter a room or talk to her.
Forming a Bond
Not surprisingly, the bond takes time to develop. Dr. Perry suggests that you “be the source of all good resources.” Instead of leaving food out, serve your cat meals, and call her when it is time. Set aside a little time at least once a day to play with, pet, or groom her if she enjoys those activities. If she likes to play with “stolen” goods such as bottle tops, toss one of these items for her once in a while.
You can also gain your cat’s trust by respecting her preferences and personal space. “Do not force your kitty to interact with you; rather, let her be the one to take the initiative,” says Dr. Perry. “Some cats have a limited tolerance for time together with us, so do not overstep the boundaries—keep the interaction time short and sweet. Most of all, be patient so that she learns to trust you.”
Training can be a rewarding activity for both of you. If your cat is food motivated, clicker training is a fun way to exercise your cat’s mind and teach her tricks. You can use toys if your cat would rather have a feathered mouse than a crunchy snack.
Cats may not be as effusive as dogs in showing affection, but they do form bonds. So, hug your kitty and tell her how much you love her. Then watch for ways she tells you she loves you back.
Feline Grief Is Very Real
Cats do mourn the loss of their human companions and other animals in the household. Signs of mourning include:
- Depression or listlessness
- Decreased appetite
- Lack of playing and social behaviors
- Changes in vocalizations (some cats may become abnormally quiet, while others may cry incessantly)
- Sleeping more
- Hiding more
If you are caring for a cat that has lost her owner or favorite person, be patient and supportive. This is especially true if the cat has had to be moved to a new home. In addition to grieving the loss of her person, she is also undergoing the stress of a physical move. Ignore undesirable behaviors, such as increased meowing, and reward and praise her for positive behaviors. Approach your fledgling relationship just like you would forming a bond with any new cat, spending time with her at meal times and to play, or even just sitting together while she is in a favorite spot.
Talk to her quietly and often, and pet her if she enjoys petting. If she has stopped grooming herself adequately, do some light brushing once a day to help keep her coat and skin healthy (just like us, cats feel better when clean).
When you need to leave the grieving cat alone, provide enrichment activities such as food hidden in toys or a “cat TV” show with birds or fish for her to watch. If possible, she will likely enjoy having an item that smells like her first owner to cuddle with.
For cats that are extremely depressed or showing extensive negative behaviors, consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. There are medications that can help with stress and anxiety in cats that may be beneficial either short- or long-term to ease your cat into her new normal.
Secure attachment is when the cat shows signs of distress when the owner is out of the room but recovers quickly when the owner returns. This cat likes her owner and is confident with her owner around, doesn’t like to be left alone in a strange place, but regains her confidence quickly when the owner returns.
Ambivalent insecure attachment is when the cat shows signs of distress when the owner leaves the room but remains stressed and does not recover when the owner returns, becoming clingy. This cat may not want to explore in a new environment, shows separation anxiety behaviors when the owner leaves, and overcompensates when the owner returns.
Avoidant insecure attachment is when the cat doesn’t react much when the owner leaves or returns. This cat may or may not explore a new room even when the owner is present and won’t show a change in behavior when the owner leaves or greet the owner when she returns.
Disorganized insecure attachment is when the cat shows a mix of ambivalent and avoidant attachment behaviors.