Human-Cat Psychology: Do Cats Improve Our Mood and Become Attached to Us?

Cute Cat

“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” — Albert Schweitzer

Last year I covered 5 unusual studies on the psychology of dogs and their owners. This kicked off a comment thread which discussed how dogs act as ice-breakers, how they might mediate the tension between couples and how long after you died they would wait to feast on your flesh.

Apparently dogs wait longer than cats although I’m pretty sure there’s no experimentally controlled evidence for this.

But what about cat-lovers and research into the psychology of cats? Inspired by MindHacks, I’ve uncovered a small literature on cats’ effects on human mood, their ability to become attached to their owners, their personalities and our relationships with them.

Can cats improve your mood?

Cats are frequently accused of being selfish, but it’s humans who are often being a little selfish when they get a cat – they hope it will give them pleasure. But do cats really consistently improve mood – was Albert Schweitzer right?

Research carried out by anthrozoologists suggests he was. A recent Swiss study recruited 212 couples with cats and compared how both their cat and their partner affected their mood.

Their results showed that, in line with previous studies, cats could alleviate negative moods but were unlikely to promote positive moods. People’s positive moods were more associated with their partners.

So it’s a cautious thumbs-up for cats – they might not make you burst into song, but they’ll take the edge off a bad day.

Is your cat really attached to you?

The reason that cats can alleviate negative moods is often attributed to attachment – the emotional bond between cat and owner. But cats are well-known for being fickle so do they really become attached to their owners?

Remarkably there’s actually been a quite sophisticated study on cat attachment behaviour towards their owners.

The classic procedure for investigating attachment in humans is the ‘strange situation‘. It tests how infants react to their mother (or father) leaving the room and then returning.

Well, this Mexican research used a similar procedure, but on cats. Analysis of the cats’ behaviour suggested they were indeed emotionally attached. While the cats were with their owners they appeared more relaxed and were more likely to explore their environment.

This is pretty good ammunition for all cat-owners who are fed up with being told by cat-haters that cats don’t care about…well…anything other than food and catnip.

What is your cat’s personality?

So it seems that cats can alleviate negative moods and become attached to humans, but do they actually have personalities of their own?

Most cat-owners would say yes. Indeed in this study owners were asked to rate their cats on 12 items and when these were analysed, four dimensions of cat personality emerged. These were the extent to which their cat was:

  1. Active, clever, curious, and sociable.
  2. Emotional, friendly and protective.
  3. Aggressive and bad-tempered.
  4. Timid.

Remember these aren’t categories but rather dimensions, so that a cat might receive a rating on each of these four dimensions which altogether would make up their personality.

With a bit of imagination these four factors can be superimposed on the widely agreed five factors of human personality: the first factor is like extraversion, the second could be neuroticism, the third factor agreeableness and the last factor openness to experience.

Obviously the final human factor, conscientiousness, has no place in the psychology of cats – whoever heard of a conscientious cat?

One legitimate criticism of this research is that people are just imagining or projecting personalities onto their cats. But these dimensions do line up with previous research on cat personality which has been carried out by people rating cats they didn’t know.

How to develop a good relationship with your cat

Like any relationship, that between a cat and a human seems to require give and take, especially since cats are so independent.

Dr Dennis Turner from the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology has carried out a series of studies investigating how humans and cats interact (e.g. this one).

From his research Dr Turner argues that the best relationships between cats and humans are found when humans respect a cat’s independence.

Of course anyone who actually owns a cat hardly needs to be told that!

Random cat psychology facts

Here are some other random cat facts I uncovered:

  • Fat cat facts: Owners of obese cats can’t see how fat their cats really are. Also, unlike the owners of fat dogs, owners of fat cats tended not to be overweight themselves.
  • Cats sent off to quarantine are friendlier, more affectionate and more timid when they return home.
  • Cats lack a sweet taste receptor – so there’s another reason, along with the fact that it can seriously harm or kill them, not to feed them chocolate.

[Image credit: swanky]

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 14 July 2008

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