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There’s a reason dogs have bested their feline rivals and earned the title “man’s best friend.” While dogs make their feelings obvious by licking pet parents’ faces and jumping in their laps, cats can look aloof by comparison. It’s often no wonder that self-described dog people far outnumber cat people across the nation.
Do Cats Love Their Owners?
If cats seem unfriendly, that’s partially because they’re so often compared to dogs. Avowed cat lovers contend that this is an unfair comparison, like judging four-legged apples against four-legged oranges. Recent years have seen researchers finally take a scientific look at feline behavior on its own terms.
In 2017, a team at Oregon State University observed how cats from both domestic and shelter settings responded to four common stimuli: human interaction, food, familiar scents, and toys. Their findings suggest that cats are far more social than that icy reputation would lead one to believe. Human contact proved the most enticing option and cats often chose it over other stimuli to which they had previously shown strong attachments.
The study’s chief author, Dr. Kristyn Vitale, led another similar study in 2019. This one focused on whether or not cats form bonds with their caretakers and, if so, how strongly they formed these bonds. Vitale and her team conducted the same type of experiment used to assess attachment and avoidance behaviors in human, canine, and primate subjects. Cats spent two minutes in a test area with their caretakers, were separated for two minutes, and finally reunited for another two-minute observation period.
Once again, the results seemed to refute conventional wisdom about feline behavior. 65% of cats showed signs of secure attachment to their caretakers, calmly returning to their side after a period of separation before wandering about the test area. The rest evidenced insecure attachment by clinging to caretakers after brief separation. Whatever their response, it was clear these cats felt attached. Further research suggested that cats are largely stuck in their ways when it comes to their attachment styles. Even after six-week socialization courses, most kittens did not show behavioral changes related to attachment.
How Cats Show Affection
Obviously, cats don’t make their feelings as obvious as other four-legged friends do. That doesn’t mean they’re unaffectionate. These common feline behaviors could all signal your pet’s positive feelings toward you.
- Purring: The most ubiquitous sign of feline affection, purring can signify a range of feelings. An anxious cat may purr, for example, as a way of reassuring themselves. When cats purr in their owners’ presence, it’s most often a sign that they’re feeling calm and affectionate.
- Headbutting: While it’s not a friendly gesture in the human world, headbutting could be your cat’s favorite way of showing affection. Cats aren’t just calling you a friend, but literally marking you as one when they rub their faces and heads against you. Your cat’s face and lips are equipped with pheromone-secreting glands, activated by the headbutting process.
- Kneading: Some cats rhythmically sink their paws and claws into soft surfaces like blankets, favorite toys, and their owners’ laps. Like headbutting, “making biscuits” activates glands and releases pheromones. Feline experts also believe the behavior could be carried over from a cat’s nursing days, when they kneaded to stimulate milk production. If your cat starts to knead you, it may mean they associate you with the same feelings of warmth and comfort as their mother and littermates. Make sure to keep your cat’s nails trimmed if they’re especially fond of kneading.
- Blinking: An enigmatic stare punctuated by occasional, slow blinks may not look like a friendly way to greet a trusted pal. To cats, however, slow blinking is a primary method of communicating affection. Cats engage in blink-based “conversations” with their feline pals and research suggests they can chat with human companions too.
- Following: Does your cat follow you throughout the house like a furry shadow? That’s just another way of letting you know that you’re on their mind.
- Rolling over: Lying on the ground with their bellies up puts cats in a vulnerable position. As such, they’ll usually only voluntarily expose their undersides to animals or people they know they can really trust. Beware of this behavior in unfamiliar cats, who may act submissive before striking.
- Delivering “gifts:” Some outdoor cats say thanks to pet parents in a decidedly more gruesome way, by offering slain prey as a gift. Providing a diet with sufficient protein and fitting cats with bright or belled collars can help reduce hunting and bloody surprises on the doorstep.
Bonding With Your Cat
It can take a little effort to build a strong, affectionate bond with a cat. For help, check out our detailed guide to bonding with new cats and these additional resources:
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