Cats are more independent than dogs because they do not see their owners as a source of safety or security, researchers have said. The team from the University of Lincoln said that any feline behaviour we interpret as "separation anxiety" is more likely to be signs of frustration.
Scientists used the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test (SST) – a test widely used to look at the bond between children and dogs and their primary caregiver. They adapted the test with methodological controls to create an experiment where 20 cat/owner pairs were assessed on how secure the attachment was.
Publishing their findings in the journal PLOS One, the team placed the cats in an unfamiliar environment with their owner, a stranger or on their own. They then assessed three different characteristics of attachment – how much the cat sought contact, the level of passive behaviour and signs of distress when the owner was absent.
Professor Daniel Mills, professor of veterinary behavioural medicine at the university's School Of Life Sciences, said: "Although our cats were more vocal when the owner rather than the stranger left them with the other individual, we didn't see any additional evidence to suggest that the bond between a cat and its owner is one of secure attachment. This vocalisation might simply be a sign of frustration or learned response, since no other signs of attachment were reliably seen. In strange situations, attached individuals seek to stay close to their carer, show signs of distress when they are separated and demonstrate pleasure when their attachment figure returns, but these trends weren't apparent during our research."
Mills said dogs see their owners as a "specific safe haven", but cats are far more autonomous when coping with strange situations. He said the findings do not depart from the idea cats develop social preferences and close relationships, but that these relationships are not based on the need for safety. "As far as we could tell, the cats of owners who considered them to be highly attached did not differ from the others in this regard," he added.
Scientists found there was a difference in vocalisation when the cat was left with the owner or stranger after the other had left, but no difference following their return after being left alone. The researchers believe this is consistent with vocalisation being a response to frustration because of the owner's departure – probably from previous reinforcement like feeding, rather than the owner providing comfort in a strange environment.
Mills said: "Previous research has suggested that some cats show signs of separation anxiety when left alone by their owners, in the same way that dogs do, but the results of our study show that they are in fact much more independent than canine companions. It seems that what we interpret as separation anxiety might actually be signs of frustration."
Concluding, they wrote: "It seems that generally cats do not appear to attach to owners as a focus of safety and security in the same way that dogs do or children do towards their parents as demonstrated by their behaviour in a strange situation test. However, cats do appear to have a different relationship with their owner compared to a stranger, but the extent to which this is conditioned as a result of incidental interactions or built upon the fulfilment of an intrinsic psychological social need is unknown."