Flawed Study: “Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners”

Old Lady and Cat
Old Lady and Cat
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

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.

Please search using the search box at the top of the site. You are bound to find what you are looking for.

Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

12 thoughts on “Flawed Study: “Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners””

  1. The Lincoln researchers conceded that “alternative methods need to be developed to characterise the normal psychological features of the cat-owner bond,” and concluded that “adult cats are typically quite autonomous, even in their social relationships, and not necessarily dependent on others to provide a sense of security and safety.”


    1. Thanks Sarah for taking the time to provide your input on this study. The newspapers more often than not come to the wrong conclusions when it comes to studies. Personally, I still have doubts about this study.

      1. It did involve a cat behaviour specialist to help interpret the behaviour. The use of the term “attachment” is the issue for most people – the study was about “secure attachment” which is a specific behaviour and is not the same as social bonding (which they admit occurs in cats).

  2. Okay, I have analysed the study and sent a paper to Michael. The media have ignored a big chunk of it including the definition of “attachment” and the researcher’s comments on the (un)suitability of the test because of the cat’s psychology. The study was into “secure attachment” not into “sociability” or “owner attachment.” “Secure attachment” is most easily defined as “does you cat use you as a security blanket in an unfamiliar situation?” It concludes that cats don’t use their owner that way. This is not the same as “cat’s don’t have any attachment to their owner.” The study was very thorough and the researchers conceded its many shortfalls and the way cats differ from dogs. The media reported it very badly and made it sound completely different to what it actually was.

    I’ll put my observations on messybeast tonight. Most of it interprets the science speak into something taht everyone (except a journalist!) can understand.

  3. The study was actually pretty thorough and most of the discussion is about how the test isn’t suited to feline psychology! The papers that have picked up the story are the ones reporting it incorrectly. The researchers found that the unfamiliar environment inhibits the cat and that its innate behaviours are still solitary and don’t demonstrate lack of attachment.

    I’ll do a detailed critique later, but the online media have severely dumbed down the story – probably because the scientific/statistical part was beyond the grasp of their journalists.

  4. Why then do most our of cats return to their own home to sleep the night or bring back their catch if they were hunting all night. They bring their owners pressies? (rarely welcome at 3am but still, prey being brought back into their own den, surely explains attachment and security/safe haven?!?)

  5. This sounds exactly like a study I examined over a year ago, and it wasn’t fresh then. I recently tried to find it on youtube but it is gone. This either the same study, republished, or a rehash of the exact same factors. I arrived at the same conclusions, that it’s flawed in the same ways you stated, Michael. I will add that science can’t have it both ways too… there’s this way (bad science), and there’s the consensus that cats are too difficult to study in the first place, at least with the methods they’re used to employing, and to make it worth their while in the second place. The general public just as lazy and human – they want to believe what they already think they know, so giving them what they want makes everyone happy. These researchers take a couple of weeks, set up the experiment, video for a couple days, compile the results they either wanted or thought they’d get, then get what they can for their conclusion. It reminds me of L. David Mech, (senior wolf expert here in the U.S.) who renounced his initial findings that were built upon flawed research from the 1940’s and follow up studies of wolves that also screwed up our perception of dogs as well. The bottom line is HOW the studies were conducted then in contrast to now. Captive, unrelated wolves developed and displayed very abnormal behavior compared to how they really are: all related, in “their” environment under “their” conditions during “their” time frames, etc. And to attribute conclusions drawn from that to impose on domestic dogs was an even bigger mistake. To better understand cats it takes many years of living with and studying domestic cats in what has become their environment – our homes or as Alger and Alger studied them, in a no kill cat shelter for three years (refer to their book “Cat Culture”). I read the original paper on that too and it is fascinating. The Potter/Mills study is a joke. And Michael, I love the part about gravitas.

  6. You’re singing to the choir, Sandra. I totally agree. Mitzy missed you and when you came to visit she clung to you for comfort. I’ve had cats follow me from room to room. Sure, they try to play it off and pretend that I just happened to be in the room and they weren’t really following me, but they were.

  7. Sandra Murphey, No. CA, USA

    I agree that this study is BS, and flawed. When I’ve taken my cat to the vets, she has always gravitated to me, when put on the floor by the vet.

    Also, after a week at the vet’s when I visited her mid-week, she curled up to me, and put her face in the crook of my arm, showing fear and insecurity.

    One of the assistants said she hissed at her. I’ve never heard Mitzy hiss at anyone, so she must have had a good reason. She’s a very timid cat.

    I hope I never have to leave her at the vet’s again.

    1. I have the same experience Sandy. Gabriel is thrilled to see me when I come home. He trots inside after being outside for hours and calls for me and comes to me and lies next to me or on me. When there is trouble outside he races inside for protection etc.. All the signs of a secure attachment are there in my assessment. I have a strong feeling that the method employed in this study is flawed.

  8. I call BS on this one.

    My old girl Samirah waited for her human to come get her. She ignored all potential adopters, so she languished in that no-kill shelter for a year. She was abused in that house for over a decade, but she didn’t leave. She didn’t want to. When her owner went to the nursing home the rescue group used a capture stick to get her out from underneath the bed and drag her out of the house. Sounds cruel, but that was the only way to capture her. Trying to restrain that cat when she’s afraid and angry was impossible and anyone who tried would be seriously injured.

    If Samirah had made it to the outside world, would she have survived on her own? At the time she was old, overweight and had a large fatty tumor underneath her chin. Her human family lived in a rough area of town where stray cats were used as target practice. I’d say her chances for survival were slim to none. Funny that study doesn’t take into account the environment stray and feral cats would face on the streets. “They’ll be fine.” The cats they talk about must be the feline version of Rambo.

    The money for that totally flawed study could have been used for something more constructive. I wonder about their motives in publishing that tripe in the first place.

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