The online newspapers have picked up on a bit of cat behavior research carried out at Lincoln University in the UK which concerns the attachment of domestic cats to their human caretakers/guardians. It is, in fact, all over the Internet and for the first time I have discovered the actual research paper and I’m going to say that it is flawed and I explain why below.
The title of the research study is called “Domestic Cats (Felis sylvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners”. I have written a brief article on this before but not having seen the original study document.
The Way The Study Was Conducted
Twenty domestic cats were employed in the study. There were 4 males and 16 female cats. Interestingly, all the males were neutered but only one of the female cats had been spayed. I wonder whether this is normal in the UK? Nineteen of the cats had regular access to the outside.
Throughout the study, the testing of the behaviour of these cats took place in “plain rooms”. The “test rooms were unfamiliar to cat subjects”. In other words all the cats were placed into strange rooms where there was the owner and a stranger.
The objective of the test was to see whether, in general, in households across the land the domestic cat forms a “secure attachment” with their human caretaker. The way you measure this aspect of feline behaviour under the terms of this test is to see how a domestic cat looks to their human caretaker for the provision of safety and security over and above an affectionate bond.
If the cat is looking for safety and security in the human caretaker the indications will be whether (a) the cat seeks to maintain proximity and contact with their caretaker and (b) show signs of pleasure when returned to their caretaker having been separated and distressed when separated and (c) the cat regards the human caretaker as a safe haven to which he/she returns when frightened and (d) the cat regards her caretaker as a “secure-base” from which she can move away and then engage in other activities.
Why I Believe It is Flawed
The observed behaviour of these 20 cats in unusual and unfamiliar surroundings, in which there was a stranger and their owner, cannot, I would submit, be typical for these cats because of their overriding emotional reaction to being placed under these stressful circumstances. I am going to suggest that their emotional reaction to being in a strange environment with a stranger would mask any other behaviour patterns that the study wishes to examine. I would therefore conclude that the study is flawed. Under these circumstances the scientists end up testing cat behaviour as a reaction to stressful conditions and not what they are meant to be studying.
This is simply my suggestion and I am not saying I am necessarily 100% correct but believe that I am. The people who did the study, Potter A and Mills DS, I would suggest, did not have sufficient knowledge of cat behaviour to ensure that their study was entirely workable.
Scientist Studying Cat Behavior Must Understand Cats Intimately
I believe that scientists engaged in studying cat behaviour (and there are quite a few studies on the subject both in America and in the UK) need to have a thoroughly good understanding of the domestic cat and his/her behaviour in order to ensure that their conclusions are sound. They also need to be impartial.
What is disappointing is that online newspapers pick up on the studies as if they are the gospel truth and 100% accurate backed up by quality scientific research. However, the studies often are not of sufficient quality. Often the heavy, almost impregnable scientific language employed by scientists to give their work gravitas masks the weakness of the research to the layperson.
Also, somewhat rarely but it does happen, the scientist is biased against the domestic cat. The domestic cat is portrayed in a bad light backed up by distorted scientific research. I don’t like this and what is disappointing is that journalists and reporters working for online newspapers are not aware of this weakness in some of the studies published on the Internet.