Are Cats Truly Less Loving Than Dogs?
Recently, I've seen a sudden flurry of alarming Internet headlines mentioning a brand-new research study. The headlines may give you the impression that cats love you less than dogs, but they are deceptive and don't provide an accurate summary of the study's actual findings.
Study "Secure Attachment"
The study by Alice Potter and Daniel Mills, which was published on the PLOS One website, featured twenty guardian-cat pairings. Two rooms with two chairs each (one for the guardian and one for a stranger), some cat toys, and closed windows were given over to the cats. Each cat's interactions with its guardian and the outsider during a variety of behaviors were caught on camera (guardian leaving and returning, stranger leaving and returning, etc.) The "Ainsworth Strange Situation" test was used by the researchers to evaluate the cats' behavior in terms of how much attachment they showed to their caretakers.
Results of the "Secure Attachment" study
While cats in the test did vocalize more when their guardian left than when a stranger did, researchers concluded that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the link between a cat and guardian is one of safe attachment.
In fact, the study's findings indicated that "many aspects of cat behavior...do not consistently reflect the traits of attachment." However, they also pointed out that the test did not examine if there would be variations in attachment between indoor-only cats and cats that are indoor/outdoor, and they added that the test they employed might not have been a useful tool to assess the affiliations of cats to their guardians. They specifically said, "We do not wish to imply that cats do not develop some kind of affectionate social relationship or bond with their owners, only that the relationship with the primary caregiver is not typically characterized by a preference for that individual based on their providing safety and security for the cat."
What does this all actually mean?
This means that unlike dogs, cats do not exhibit the same level of connection to their guardians in terms of viewing them as a source of safety and instead exhibit more behaviors that humans would describe as "independent." This is not to say that cats do not appreciate their relationship with their guardians; rather, they seek human companionship in ways and for purposes that are distinct from those of dogs.
For instance, the Ainsworth test for dogs indicated that standing by the door where the guardian had left was a crucial indicator of connection and even separation anxiety. The cats in the study did not exhibit this behavior, but the researchers caution that this may not be because cats don't miss you because "cats do not indicate sorrow in this way."
You do not observe the same kinds of robust social ties among cat social groups as you do among canine social groups. This might be because cats are more solitary hunters and don't require close social bonds to survive1.
Cats do not depend on humans for their daily requirements, unlike dogs who have been working and living with humans for a far longer time. However, they do exhibit "affectionate" behavior and a preference for their guardian(s) over non-household humans. They also definitely develop social relationships with their owners. To sum up, don't allow attention-grabbing headlines make you question your cat's affection.