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Published February 21, 2014

Do Dogs Love Their Owners More Than Cats?

Do cats have the same “emotional attachment” to their owners that dogs do? A video showing the behavior of a dog and of a cat when their owners leave the room has been circulating on Facebook for months.

Professor Daniel Martin of University of Lincoln conducted this experiment with the premise that the dog sees his owner “as a source of comfort, joy and safety,” which is his definition of a “secure attachment style relationship.”

He believes his experiment proves dogs “love” their owners than cats do. I fall strongly in the “Cat Person” category, and as a cat lover, I feel he has made several fallacious conclusions based on poor understanding of how cats and dogs differ in their thinking, as well as their behaviors and motivational drives.

I understand the video is a sample from the twenty cats used for the experiment, and there is much information not shared for time’s sake. But I have some questions not explored in the video. Their answers might influence the results.

First, the video compares a child’s behavior with a dog’s, when their “mother” is present in a room with a stranger. The subjects initially cling to their mother. After a bit, they become more willing to explore and play with a stranger.

While the child–and later the dog–are playing with the stranger, the mother-figure sneaks out of the room. Both child and dog stop playing as soon as they realize their source of comfort and security has gone, and according to Dr.Martin they begin showing signs of anxiety. However, if you watch the video, you’ll note the stranger is sitting in the chair when the dog starts looking for his owner. Due to editing, we can’t tell what happened here before the dog started looking at the door. How long had the stranger been sitting down before the dog became anxious? Was the dog bored? Was the dog hungry? As soon as the mother returns, the dog, like the child, became excited and focused on their mother-figure.

RELATED: 5 Life Lessons We Can All Learn From Cats.

Is the “anxious” behavior one of a strong attachment or is it one of instinctive survival behavior? I can’t help but notice the age of the child, which is about eight or nine months. This is the age of “separation anxiety.” Might this explain the instinctive, developmental response of the child? The child and the dog are totally dependent on their mother for safety and care. But is that truly what love is? What would have happened with a 5 year old child? Isn’t the child’s behavior one of age related “survival instinct?” Is not the dog’s response at least partially influenced by survival as well?

The cat in the video watches the owner leave and does not play, but rather climbs up in the lap of the stranger. When the owner returns, the cat does not resume playing, but looks at the owner’s entrance and goes behind the stranger, showing no sign of playfulness.

When I got my second cat from her owner, the owner would come see Sister every week or two. We soon noticed that Sister showed no interest in her previous owner after the second or third visit.

Is this, like the video cat’s behavior, one of spite, or rather a simple seeking out security where she could find it at the moment? The cat’s reaction could be viewed as an instinctive survival mechanism, finding someone else to care for it since its owner left it in a room with a stranger?

Dr. Martin concludes that the cat’s attachment to its owner indicates the owner is merely “a provider of resources, rather than a provider of safety, which is the key feature of a secure attachment….Cat owners clearly love their cats, it is not as clear whether cats love them back,” Dr. Martin states. However, one could also view both the dog and cat reactions through the same lens–each animal simply has a different survival mechanism, neither of which necessarily translate into “love.”

Furthermore, variables in any experiment must be taken into account. One factor influencing the animals’ behaviors is the way the animals were brought in. The dog walks in on a leash, which he most likely associates with daily walks. Perhaps he was simply glad to see his owner because he thought he was leaving or going for a walk. In this case, the dog is seeking a pleasurable activity, not security and attachment as Dr. Martin interprets.

The cat is brought into the room in a carrier, which is likely used to transport it to the vet or other unfamiliar places. How long was the cat in the carrier? That could make a difference in the way the cat responded to its owner, too. Was the cat anxious before release into the room? From what I have seen, cats do not like to be contained in a carrier. The cat could be angry about being confined to a carrier and therefore goes straight to the stranger. Cats can be spiteful sometimes. Or is the cat just curious about the stranger? They are curious creatures after all!

The cat walks up to the stranger and interacts confidently, but when it comes time to play the cat does engage the stranger, opting instead to circle behind her as the owner leaves before climbing into the stranger’s lap. When the owner comes back in the room, the cat does look at their entrance for more than two seconds, but stays behind the stranger a moment, then comes around in a wide circle toward the door. I would like to see other videos of cats studied.

RELATED: How Superstition Kills Black Cats.

I also wonder about the cat’s relationship with the owner. There is no indication of assessing the intimacy of the cat and its owner or how long they have been together. Does the cat have an affectionate nature, or is it more independent? What was the breed of the cat? Some cats, like some dogs, are more affectionate. Was a survey done to assess the similarities or differences between the dog’s and the cat’s personality, playfulness, friendliness, and status in the “pack” of its family?

The major point, I think, is this: Dogs are different animals from cats. Their responses are different, as well as their relationships to humans. Dogs love attention and affection and are pack animals. They are innately a member with a status in their pack. Dogs are raised with a need to be accepted by the leader or alpha dog–in other words, their owner. Cats have no such hierarchy. Cats generally live together on an basis of acceptance.

Dogs have been bred for centuries for their ability to serve and relate to man.

In cultures like ours cats have only in the last century been accepted as household pets (as opposed to the “mousers” who lived outside and protected the farmers’ barns from mice, independent of man). Why would anyone expect a cat to show affection like a dog does? Cats have had to survive on their own much longer as a wild animal than dogs have. Is it unreasonable that their survival instincts would be the first and foremost driving factor in many of their behaviors. Can they still not have love for their owners? Why is one animal’s response to a situation the guideline for all the rest?

Now for the clincher! This cat owner videotaped his two cats’ reactions to his departure from the house. Quite different from Dr. Martin’s experiment!

Point made!

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  • Elaine Estes

    Elaine

  • I love stories and legends, whether they be educational, humourous, silly or touching. I grew up on the fairy tales and later grew to love legends from different times and different cultures. Find other stories and legends from Elaine, by visiting her own blog “joyful2bee“. All my articles.

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