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The team at PetPlace was a little surprised when cats pulled off a narrow victory over dogs in our 2020 Pet Election. After all, it’s dogs that wear the moniker “Man’s Best Friend.” Self-described dog people (and some neutral parties) have long characterized cats as aloof at best and outright unfriendly at worst.
Two recent studies, however, suggest that cats may be far more affectionate than we think. The first study, led by Oregon State University’s Dr. Krysten Vitale, suggests that cats form bonds and feel affection just as much as dogs and human infants. The second vindicates cat lovers everywhere by examining the role of “slow blinking” in human-feline relationships. Led by Dr. Karen McComb of the University of Sussex, the researchers found evidence that blinking and eye narrowing can help cat parents to form bonds and even communicate with their beloved pets.
Cats Like (Some) People
Dr. Vitale and the first study’s authors note that cats have historically gotten less attention from the scientific community than dogs. This is in spite of the fact that pet cats outnumber pet dogs worldwide. “Despite fewer studies,” the study reads, “research suggests we may be underestimating cats’ socio-cognitive abilities.” Dr. Vitale and her team set out to answer whether or not cats form bonds with their owners and caretakers. Previous studies into the question had produced conflicting results.
The researchers gathered around 120 cats (including both kittens and adults) and owners to take part in a “secure base test.” These tests began with a cat and their owners entering an unfamiliar room and staying there together for two minutes. After that period had elapsed, the owner exited the room. They returned after two minutes and the researchers observed the pet’s response. Cats who casually returned to their owners’ side while continuing to wander around the room were considered to have a secure attachment, viewing their owner as a “secure base.” Around two-thirds of the subjects were shown to exhibit this behavior. The rest showed signs of insecure attachment by immediately clinging to their owner or avoiding them completely. These results closely matched those from experiments with both dogs and infants.
Next, half of the subjects participated in a course on socialization and training. With the other half serving as the base group, the researchers recreated the initial experiment. The results were effectively the same, suggesting that cats not only form bonds, but stable ones.
Speaking to the New York Times, Dr. Mikel Delgado (who was not affiliated with the experiment) notes that studying how cats respond to strangers may provide a better sense of their relationship with humans. The team at Oregon State University plans to continue exploring these relationships and sharing their findings with both the scientific community and cat people everywhere.
How to Chat With Your Cat
Most of the time, you don’t need to be a canine behavioral scientist to know whether or not a dog is showing affection. Cats are typically much harder to read. While researchers understand how cats communicate with one another, their relationships with humans have remained more mysterious. Dr. McComb and her team believe they’ve found evidence that cats show trust and affection to humans the same way they show it to other cats, through slow blinking.
To test their hypothesis, Dr. McComb and her team conducted a pair of experiments with felines across the UK. They asked owners to sit face-to-face with their cats and recorded the responses. Some owners blinked, others did not. The cats were more likely to return a blink than spontaneously offer one. For the second experiment, the researchers themselves sat across from the cat. Once again, the cats returned blinks more often than they blinked at humans with neutral expressions.
Tasmin Humphrey, one of the study’s other authors, urges cat lovers to try slow blinking with their own pets. Whereas direct eye contact may threaten them, a few slow blinks can relax and engage them. “Try narrowing your eyes at them as you would with a relaxed smile,” she says, “followed by closing your eyes for a few seconds.” Your cat should respond in kind to strike up a conversation. Start chatting with your cat today!