It’s easy to tell that a dog loves you. The moment you return from a short absence, there are slobbering kisses and overeager jumps (and, in the case of puppies, some loss of bladder control) to prove it. With cats, it’s a little harder. Sure, they might rub up against your legs a bit, but do they actually care about you, or do they just want dinner? 

A new study by a pair of animal behavior researchers from the University of Lincoln in the UK suggests that you may not be as precious to your kitty as she is to you. It’s not that your cat doesn’t like you—it's just likely that she doesn’t look to you as her source of safety and security in an uncertain world. 

As they report in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers tested how much cats really like their owners using the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test, a psychology test that has been used to demonstrate both babies’ and dogs’ perceptions of their parents/owners as their primary source of safety and security. In it, the study subjects (in this case, cats) are placed in unfamiliar rooms with their owners and with a stranger. The researchers observe whether the cats respond differently to being with their owner versus a stranger, testing whether the cats look to their owners for a special source of comfort. 

In tests with 18 cats (two others had to be excluded because, in typically feline fashion, they spent the entire experiment hiding), kitties didn’t alter their behavior significantly if their owner was present versus a stranger. They didn’t play more with their owner than with a stranger, nor were they more vocal when their owner left the room than when a stranger did. They didn’t try to stick closer to their owners in a strange situation, which would signify secure attachment. 

“We do not reject that cats may have social preferences, nor that some cats might form this type of attachment in certain circumstances, nor do we wish to imply that cats do not form some form of affectionate social relationship or bond with their owners,” they write, “only that the relationship with the primary caregiver is not typically characterized by a preference for that individual based on them providing safety and security to the cat.”

Certainly cats have a different relationship with their owners than with total strangers, but it may not mimic the parental-strength attachment seen in dogs. It’s also possible that cats express their bond with their owners in ways that a test designed to measure infants’ attachment to their mothers cannot deduce. However, the study confirms what we’ve always known: Cats are independent, mysterious creatures. 

[h/t: Washington Post]