“Despite fewer studies, research suggests we may be underestimating cats’ socio-cognitive abilities.”

Such are the words of Dr. Kristyn R. Vitale of Oregon State University’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab, lead author on a new study about whether cats bond with their humans or not.

Last week, CBS News journalist Caitlin O’Kane wrote about Vitale’s research. The group studied 70 kittens aged 3 to 8 months, classifying their “attachment styles” at the end of the study.

Here’s how the test worked: In an unfamiliar room, kittens spent two minutes with their caregivers. Then their humans left the room for two minutes. Basically, researchers watched how the kitties reacted to each situation, especially the response to the return of their caregivers.

I found it curious that researchers used evaluations similar to attachment studies with human infants and with dogs. The question is whether the babies, dogs or cats are attached enough to their SH (“significant human”) that any stress from an unfamiliar situation is gone when SH returns. How could Vitale and her colleagues tell? Cats with “secure attachments” are less stressed when SH returns and “greet their caregiver and then resume exploration of the room, occasionally returning to the caregiver.” Upon their caregiver’s return, the stressed-out cats might meow incessantly, switch their tails or cling to their SH and not move.

Interestingly, in Vitale’s study, 64.3 percent of the kittens were “securely attached.” This is an almost identical percentage to previous studies with dogs and babies. 

As researchers concluded, “The current data support the hypothesis that cats show a similar capacity for the formation of secure and insecure attachments towards human caregivers previously demonstrated in children and dogs…with the majority of individuals in these populations securely attached to their caregiver.”

This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom from folks like author Garrison Keillor who wrote that “Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a function.” One need only stroke the fur of a fluffy cat – like our Jasper – to know otherwise.

Granted, cats do appear as notoriously aloof, but I liken it to having a weird Uncle Harold. No matter what mischief he gets into, the family says, “Oh, that’s just Harold; he’s a little goofy, that’s all.” The same goes for their cat.

But exactly what is Vitale’s purpose in the study of all those kitties? Mike McInally, writing about the research in Oregon’s Albany Democrat Herald, notes that Vitale plans to continue exploring the bond between humans and cats. With these findings, researchers can “try to test whether specific interventions could help cats form early bonds that could make them feel more secure; that could increase their chances of adoption.”

Indeed, society has so incorporated felines and canines that people are often categorized as to whether they’re “cat people” or “dog people.” A cat owner asks, “Guess how many times I’ve had to walk my cat this winter?” A dog owner responds, “Guess how often your precious cat and its feline pals became service animals?”

The difference is that now cat lovers have science on their side…

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