February 06, 2021
By Rachel Nuwer
“This result suggests a similarity in sociality in humans and companion animals,” said Atsuko Saito, a behavioural scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, who was not involved in the new research. “Investigating this phenomenon will help us better understand the evolution of sociality in animals, including us.”
After the first round of tests, the researchers enrolled half the kittens used in the study in a training and socialization course. The other half served as a control group.
One day a week for six weeks, kittens played with one another and were trained to sit, stay and do tricks. When the course was complete, the researchers repeated the secure base test with the kittens.
They found the same results, meaning the training did not have an effect on kittens’ attachment behaviour toward their owners. This indicates that once a cat forms a bond, it seems to remain stable over time, Dr. Vitale said.
In cats — as in infants and dogs — researchers still do not know all of the factors that shape the caretaker relationship, but it’s likely a complex mix of genetics, personality and experience.
It is possible that even more cats are securely bonded to their owners than the new study found, said Mikel Delgado, an animal behaviour researcher at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the research.
Unlike dogs and infants, many cats spend nearly all of their time inside, so being in a new environment can be a foreign and frightening experience, she said. For some cats, a fearful response to a stressful situation may take precedence over a secure bond with an owner, so the study results may not fully capture the attachments of some cats.
Testing cats’ responses to strangers, rather than to just their owners, might reveal whether cats are truly bonded to a specific person or are sociable toward humans in general, Dr. Delgado added.
Dr. Vitale and her colleagues plan to delve more deeply into cats’ relationships with people, and to test whether specific interventions can help shelter cats form early bonds that help them feel more secure and get adopted more quickly.
“The more we find out about cats, the more we’re seeing that they are social creatures and that social bonds are really important for them,” she said.
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