There are a lot of cats in the United States. Perhaps close to 95 million live with us as pets, reports the Times-Picayune. But does our affection for these feline friends move in just one direction? New research in the journal PLoS One suggests that domesticated cats are more independent than dogs because they have less "secure attachment" to their owners. In this case, attachment "is not simply an affectionate bond," the researchers write, but relates to "the carer being perceived as a focus of safety and security in otherwise threatening environments." Past research has indicated that some cats whose owners leave them alone display signs of separation anxiety, as dogs do. "But the results of our study show that they are in fact much more independent than canine companions," says lead researcher Daniel Mills. "It seems that what we interpret as separation anxiety might actually be signs of frustration."
Behavioral scientists at the University of Lincoln in the UK tested this by observing cats in unfamiliar environments with their owners, with strangers, and alone. They were looking for three distinct characteristics of attachment: the amount of contact a cat sought, its level of passive behavior, and its distress when the owner was absent. Cats were, it turns out, more vocal when their owners left them than when strangers did, but they demonstrated no other signs of attachment, hence the possibility that the vocalization was not one of longing; the researchers posit it could indicate frustration or just be a "learned response." "Our findings don’t disagree with the notion that cats develop social preferences or close relationships," says Mills, "but they do show that these relationships do not appear to be typically based on a need for safety and security." (One woman's attempt to rescue her cat from a cliff didn't go so well.)