Two scientific studies have hit the presses in the last month, touting the same conclusion: cats just don’t love us. Not the way that dogs do, anyway. But the results of both studies have been misinterpreted.
In fact, a more in-depth examination of both studies and the way that their results have been reported suggests a different conclusion entirely, namely: dog lovers are emotionally stunted and terrible at relationships.
A study by Atsuko Saito and Kazutaka Shinozuka at the University of Tokyo was published by the journal Animal Cognition with the title, Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus). In their experiment, the researchers played the sounds of four different people for each cat: three strangers, and the cat’s owner. Based on an array of different behavioural reactions, they found that the cat was able to recognise its owner’s voice.
The item that the popular press latched on to was that the cats reacted with “orienting behaviour”, such as turning their ears or looking toward the sound, but not by “communicative behaviour”, such as going toward the voice or trying to call back to the owner.
This contrasts, of course, with the way that dogs typically behave, which is to immediately move toward the sound of their owners’ voices. For dog lovers, this was scientific evidence that a cat recognises the voice of its owner, but simply doesn’t care.
This interpretation is not merely silly, it is incredibly revealing about the deeper psychology of dog lovers. The unspoken assumption in this conclusion is that a cat does not love you unless it expresses its love in one specific way that you want and expect.
The unspoken assumption is that there is only one correct way to express love, and that if that criterion is not met then the “love” is somehow absent or invalid.
They insist that their partners react in one specific manner, or else the love is completely invalid
How sad is that? One of the key lessons that anyone must learn in order to have successful loving relationships in life – whether romantic, familial or platonic – is that different people express their love differently. As you develop a relationship with another person, you cannot assume that he or she will express love for you in precisely the way that you want and expect.
A successful relationship depends on each person learning the “language of love” that is used by the other: what are the small gestures, words, or movements that the other person uses to express love, irrespective of what you might expect or even want?
Yet if the reaction to this study is any indication, dog lovers do not have this capacity. Instead, they insist that their partners react in one specific manner, or else the love is completely invalid. Yes, sure, in this case we are talking about their relationships with pets…but what does this portend for their other relationships? Worrisome, indeed.
The second experimental result is even more troubling. Professor Daniel Mills of the University of Lincoln used an experimental method that is usually used to test for infant-caregiver attachment: the “strange situation”.
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth came up with the “strange situation” experiment in 1970. The idea was to watch how an infant reacts to a sequence of seven events that occur in 3 minute intervals:
- The infant and the parent start out alone in the room
- A stranger joins them
- The parent leaves the stranger and infant alone
- The parent returns and the stranger leaves
- The parent leaves the infant completely alone
- The stranger returns, and
- The parent returns and the stranger leaves
All of this was watched by observers through a one-way mirror, and they would take notes about how the infant reacts to each change in its environment. The researchers record things like the infant’s level of anxiety, how much it explored its environment, and so on.
Ainsworth classified three different types of attachment in infants: secure attachment (most infants fall in this category), in which the infants are comforted by the mother and might be fearful of the stranger when alone but are willing to interact with the stranger when the mother is around; ambivalent attachment, in which the infants are extremely distressed by the stranger and very upset when the mother leaves, but are not calmed by the mother’s return; and avoidant attachment, in which the infant does not react very much to the mother one way or the other.
Mills performed this same experiment, but with dogs and cats. The dogs showed behaviour similar to most infants: secure attachment to their owners. Cats, on the other hand, seemed to interact roughly the same with both the owner and the stranger, and did not seem particularly distressed when the owner left.
Of course, once again the popular press reported this result as “Your cat does not love you“, although this confuses the science a little bit because it is unclear whether the cat showed no attachment behaviour or fell more accurately into Ainsworth’s “avoidant attachment” classification.
It implies that dog lovers can only be satisfied in a loving relationship with a pet that acts as a psychological substitute for an infant.
Either way, the very fact that this result would be reported in this manner is troubling: it implies that a pet should love you in the same way that an infant loves its mother. To put it another way: dog lovers seem to believe that if a pet does not express its love in an infantile human manner, then it must not love you at all.
I pity someone with this kind of attitude. After all, how far does it apply? If a dog lover only recognises infantile love as being love at all, what does that say about his familial relationships? Or his romantic relationships?
But even if this very narrow, very restricted view of “love” only applies to pets, it is still unhealthy. It implies that dog lovers can only be satisfied in a loving relationship with a pet that acts as a psychological substitute for an infant.
Indeed, symbolically this reflects a need that the dog lover has to be in a relationship with what is, effectively, an infant who never matures. If your partner or spouse is a dog lover, you may want to ponder that.
In the dog house
These two scientific studies tell us very little about the emotions of cats. They do, however, tell us a great deal about the attitudes and mindsets of dog lovers. Dog lovers, as a species, seem prone to a very one-dimensional view of love, and have very rigid assumptions and expectations about the way love must be expressed.
Worse, they seem to use their pets as a way to recapitulate feelings of dependency, looking to the other partner in the social bond to act in an infantile manner to fulfil their need to play the role of doting care-giver.
The best remedy and recommendation that I can think of, if you have a dog lover in your life, would be this: get him a cat. Perhaps he can learn to appreciate the fact that love can be expressed in a multitude of ways, and does not have to be rooted in infantile dependency.
Perhaps owning a cat can be the first step toward having even more healthy, complex and varied emotional relationships.