Is it normal for a cat to imprint on you? What’s the difference to attachment?

A person asked: “Is it normal for a cat to imprint on you? My cat will not leave my side and must sleep with me or she meows all night. She was feral.”

Cat attachment to human
Photo in public domain from PoC archives.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

In terms of a domestic cat’s behaviour, I think that a close attachment by a cat to her human guardian is very similar to a cat who has been imprinted with the notion that their human companion is their mother.

“Imprinting” is a technical term in the realm of psychology. As I understand it, in kittens, it occurs when a newborn kitten sees her mother and as a result attaches herself to the parent as her mother. Imprinting creates the kitten-to-parent relationship.

It might happen in the kitten-to-human relationship if and when a person attends the birth of a kitten and the kitten attaches to that person as her mother. Or the imprinting takes place quite soon after birth. It will be a special form of attachment as offspring to parent.

There are other examples of different species imprinting. For instance in one video a duck had imprinted a dog as her parent.

But as I stated at the beginning of the page, if a kitten does not experience imprinting but nonetheless forms a very close bond with her human companion her behavior will mirror that of an imprinted cat because cats see us as surrogate mothers anyway.

Therefore in answering the person’s question in the first paragraph, imprinting is definitely not normal for cat owners but close attachment between cat and person is and therefore the cat behaves in a way which might give the impression that imprinting has taken place. For me, in a good human-to-cat relationship, there is a fine difference. What do you think?

Can imprinting take place between young kitten and human?

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

4 thoughts on “Is it normal for a cat to imprint on you? What’s the difference to attachment?”

  1. Yes, that’s the way I’ve understood imprinting, as Michael and Jane explained it. More a biological reflex than the result of reciprocal affection developed over time. I think there can be one or the other as primary or a mixture of both, but the most common is earned friendship, pseudo parent/offspring feelings earned over time rather than straight imprinting alone. It all happens in our natural world so I wouldn’t get hung up on what someone labels the relationship, but as I understand this a kitten is beyond “imprinting” after approximately the 2 month mark so anything they do after that is more choice than anything. Once they open their eyes and see “mommy”, be them a cat, a dog, a duck or a human that’s it basically, but it takes a village so to speak otherwise they wouldn’t transition from real cat mom to us at all. I think a feral cat who did not experience people at that young age who turns around and accepts them is unusual and special. That’s a profound unnatural adjustment in their life and it’s remarkable and worthy of all the love you can give them. But feral is pretty wild. People confuse stray homeless cats with feral. If you’ve ever been in a room with a feral cat you’d understand the difference.

    1. I found the concept of imprinting a bit tricky as the domestic cat’s relationship with us is one of kitten to mother anyway so there is no much difference. There is a difference, yes, but it is masked by the natural relationship between us an our cat. I’ll check out Jane’s comment.

  2. Close attachment that resembles imprinting, is very common, across all species. It most frequently happens when a human has given very intense nursing care to a domesticated species. The recipient of the care can become distraught, distressed, jealous, lost, once the intense period of care ends.

    In rescued cats & tamed to dependence ferals, this can cause issues when they are rehomed away from their original carer. It can cause re-relinquishment.

    This phenomenon happens in humans too, after protracted periods of medical/nursing or social care.

    For the most explicit work on imprinting, see the work of Konrad Lorenz, who first described it in the late 1930s.

    He was truly the founder of ethology.

    1. Thanks Jane. It is quite a tricky subject I found. Even how to use the word ‘imprinting’ in a sentence is tricky ๐Ÿ˜‰ !

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