Research Says Kittens Bond to Their Owners Similarly to How Kids Bond With Parents

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In the 1960s, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth led a groundbreaking study into how babies bond with their caregivers.

In an experiment called the Strange Situation, she would have a mother leave her baby alone for a short time in an unfamiliar room with toys. Most of the babies would cry at mom’s absence, but were instantly happy when she came back. Ainsworth labeled these babies as “securely” attached. They used their parents as security while they explored the space around them.

There were also “insecurely” attached babies. Some were “ambivalent,” meaning they were clingy, anxious and difficult to soothe. Others were “avoidant,” meaning they showed indifference to their caregivers.

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Over the decades since Ainsworth published her study, her findings have held firm. Her numbers can vary with culture and socioeconomic status, but most children–approximately 60 percent–are considered securely attached to their parents.

What does this have to do with kittens?

Oregon State University animal psychologist Kristyn Vitale recently published a study in Current Biology. She reported that, despite the jokes and assumptions people have about the aloofness of cats, it appears they also can securely attach like babies.

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Vitale adapted the Strange Situation for cats and their caregivers by making it much shorter to accommodate for a cat’s patience. She discovered that most of the cats in her research bonded securely to their owners like babies and dogs will–about 60 percent across the species.

The insecure kittens were divided into categories as the were babies. Ambivalent kittens showed anxiety and would spin in their owners’ laps. They made up 84 percent of the insecure group. The rest of this group were mostly made up of avoidant kittens, at 12 percent, who evaded their returning owners’ touch. Finally, another category was created called “disorganized.” The behavior of these kittens wavered between approaching and ignoring their owners. A very small percentage of the babies did this too.

After testing, half of the kittens underwent a six week socialization training with their owners. Over 80 percent completed the training coming out with the same type of attachment as when they went in. Apparently, attachment is part of a cat’s personality and probably won’t change over time.

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There are critics who say babies and parents and kittens and pet owners are too different to draw so many parallels. Other experiments around cat attachment have shown different results, so remaining open-minded to other factors is important.

But the study into cat behavior does accomplish something very important. It shows cats can have fully developed and individual personalities–something we readily attribute to dogs, but are less confident doing with felines.

Cats, though, are very capable of bonding and forming deep relationships with their owners. Something to keep in mind if you’re thinking of adding sweet and attentive pets to your household.