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13 October 2021

You can’t classify cats and it’s weird that scientists tried

Secure? Ambivalent? Disorganised? Anyone who has ever met a cat will tell you they’re all of those at once.

By Rachel Cunliffe

When we don’t understand something, first we worship it, then we study it. The ancient Egyptians believed the cats were gods. Three thousand years later, scientists are catching up.

A 2019 study in Current Biology by scientists at Oregon State University into feline behaviour has recently gone viral (don’t ask why it took so long for the internet to take notice, there’s been a pandemic to think about). As Douglas Adams once wrote, “If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a nonworking cat.” These scientists have tried to figure it out without taking any cats apart, and because the news right now is depressing, I took a break from researching the unrelenting Brexit chaos and the supply chain crisis that could cancel Christmas to read the study.

First, it’s great that scientists have finally realised how important cats are to investigate. The abstract notes that “dog social cognition has received considerably more scientific attention [than cats] over the last several decades”, thanks to dogs being considered “unique” in their “proclivity for forming attachment bonds”. As anyone who has ever owned a cat will happily tell you (at some length), it is simply not true that felines don’t bond with their owners. They’re just more subtle about it.

The study goes on to say “research suggests we may be underestimating cats’ socio-cognitive abilities” – another important point, although not one relevant to my specific cat, who eats cardboard and once got into a fight with a paper bag and lost. But in general, I support recognising that cats are complex, intelligent creatures rather than heartless generators of anarchy, as they are commonly portrayed.

This research, though, wasn’t primarily about feline intelligence – it was about attachment, namely: do cats have attachment styles as babies and dogs do? To find out, researchers took a group of 70 kittens aged three to eight months (best science project ever), put them in a room with their owner, then examined their behaviour when the owner left the room briefly and returned. They also repeated the experiment with adult cats.

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I urge everyone to read the results in full, because this is without a doubt the most fun study I have ever come across. The authors clearly enjoyed it. “We evaluated the frequency of meow vocalisations” notes one section, while in another describes how “a portion of the kittens were enrolled in a six-week training and socialisation intervention”. There were, of course, “control kittens”.

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But when it comes to their actual conclusions, I have some serious doubts. Here is the description of the experiment:

“Cats were classified into attachment styles by expert attachment coders using the same criteria used in the human infant and dog literature. Upon the caregiver’s return from a brief absence, individuals with secure attachment display a reduced stress response and contact-exploration balance with the caretaker (the Secure Base Effect), whereas individuals with an insecure attachment remain stressed and engage in behaviours such as excessive proximity-seeking (ambivalent attachment), avoidance behaviour (avoidant attachment), or approach/avoidance conflict (disorganised attachment).”

The authors continue:

“Of the classifiable kittens, 64.3 per cent were categorised as securely attached and 35.7 per cent were categorised as insecurely attached. Of the insecure kittens, 84 per cent were ambivalent, 12 per cent avoidant, and 4 per cent disorganised.”

Have they ever met a cat? Because if they had, they would know that for cats there is no distinction between secure, ambivalent, avoidant and disorganised behaviour. In fact, cats are more than capable of displaying all four at once.

A cat that greets you with enthusiastic purrs the moment you return from work will the next second be pointedly ignoring you for daring to leave, before zooming around shouting at your fickleness, then collapsing in a disgruntled heap, finally deciding to curl up beside you as if nothing has happened. The most uninterested feline will suddenly decide it must be constantly at your side as you go to the loo (“excessive proximity-seeking”), while one that was happily dozing a minute ago will be hit by the need to simultaneously be on your lap and in every room of the house (“approach/avoidance conflict”).

Ask any cat owner why their cat is behaving in this way, and you will get the same indulgent two-word answer: “Because, cat.” The notion that 98.572 per cent of cats are not disorganised falls apart the second an actual cat is introduced into the equation.

I’m sure these kittens did display the relevant behaviour when tested by the totally-real-and-not-just-playing-with-animals scientists. But the idea that they would repeat that behaviour in a consistent manner, or that it tells us anything about their intrinsic personality traits is, to me, a paw print too far. The study found, reluctantly, that “nine kittens were unclassifiable”. Nonsense. All cats are unclassifiable. Cats defy classifications. Trying to put them in boxes is futile. Just ask Schrödinger.

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