Feline Autonomy

Though our cats may love us, research does suggest that they remain more independent than dogs.


The Independence of Cats

While the stereotype of the cat being independent and uncaring about relationships with their people has largely been debunked, recent research does show that adult cats do appear to be fairly autonomous —even in relationships with beloved people — and not necessary dependent on others to provide a sense of protection. Dogs, on the other hand, do appear to perceive their owners as a safe base.

The research — published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE — was led by Professor Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the University of Lincoln, UK, along with Alice Potter, who studied at Lincoln and now works with the Companion Animals Science Group at the RSPCA.

According to Professor Mills, “The domestic cat has recently passed the dog as the most popular companion animal in Europe, with many seeing a cat as an ideal pet for owners who work long hours. 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.”

The Lincoln researchers utilized the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test (SST), which has demonstrated that the bond between young children — or pet dogs — with their primary caregiver can be categorized as “secure attachment” (in which the caregiver is regarded as a focus of safety and security in potentially threatening or unfamiliar environments).

The new study observed the relationships between a number of cats and their owners — first placing the cats in an unfamiliar environment with their owners, then with a stranger, and also on their own.

In the varying scenarios, it assessed the amount of contact sought by the cat and the signs of distress caused by the absence of the owner.

“Although our cats were more vocal when the owner rather than the stranger left them with another individual, we didn’t see any additional evidence to suggest that the bond between a cat and its owner is one of secure attachment,” explained Professor Mills. “This vocalization 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 caregiver, 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 with the cats.” — Catnip staff


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