A cat study I read about recently bothered me. It claimed to find that cats don’t regard their people as a safe haven. I disagree – and apparently, so does my cat Summer. We’ve frequently been traveling companions over the past year or so, and she knows that I’m her safe place in unfamiliar surroundings.
If Summer and I visit a new place and I disappear from her sight or walk away from her, she clearly becomes distressed. When I took her to a blogging conference earlier this year, I left her in her carrier with some friends while I went to the front desk – and she did not like it one bit. When I returned I was told that she watched me, deeply concerned, as I walked away from her. When we are in a hotel lobby, she often sits right up against me. The last time I put her on a leash for a walk through a hotel corridor, I got into an extended conversation with somebody – and she sat by my feet the whole time.
According to one of the researchers involved in this study, “In strange situations, attached individuals seek to stay close to their carer, show signs of distress when they are separated and demonstrate pleasure when their attachment figure returns, but these trends weren’t apparent during our research [with cats].” Until she got used to the routine surrounding hotel rooms, Summer displayed all of the above except for the first. Being a typically curious cat, she would happily explore all the nooks and crannies of the hotel room the moment I let her out of her carrier for the first time, and as long as I was there with her, she didn’t feel the need to stay close to me. But the moment I left the hotel room, she’d start crying loudly by the door. The first time she did that, I immediately came back, and she greeted me, purring happily (in other words, “demonstrating pleasure”). She probably thought I was abandoning her. I soon realized if I kept coming back every time she cried, I’d never get to leave the hotel room, so I started ignoring her cries and eventually she learned that I wasn’t leaving her forever. Now that she’s accustomed to staying in hotels and knows I’m coming back, she doesn’t cry anymore, but she’s still happy to see me when I return.
The biggest flaw with this study, I feel, is that the researchers expected the cats they used to behave the same way that dogs or children do towards their caretakers or parents. You can’t use dog or kid behavior as a measuring stick for cats – they have their own ways of interacting with those closest to them, and their surroundings, and it’s very different from other species. Cats, with their natural curiosity and territorial sense, are far more likely to explore new surroundings and less likely to stick close by their person. This is especially true in an enclosed area like a room. Cats feel safer in smaller spaces, and if they sense that their human will protect them, they are even more confident about checking things out. That’s why Summer loves being in hotel rooms, but tends to stay by my side when we’re in the lobby – the big, busy lobby intimidates her a little, and she knows I’ll keep her safe.
In most situations, cats don’t feel the need to glue themselves to their people to consider them safe and familiar. At home, they feel they are spending time with you if you are on the couch and they are curled up in the middle of the room. People who believe a cat is expressing independence by this type are behavior are completely missing the point. The cat is curled up out in the open, not facing her human precisely because she feels safe and not threatened. She does not have to be on guard and she does not have to lean on you. Her very presence and body language is saying, “I love you and you make me feel safe.” It’s classically feline, and very different from dog or human expression.
Only when researchers study cats on their own terms, and stop comparing them to dogs and human beings will they begin to really learn all the amazing things these graceful, loyal, affectionate creatures have to offer.