New Study Suggests Your Cat is Either a Big Jerk or a Zen Master

Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea. ~ Robert A. Heinlein Click To Tweet

Sorry cat-lovers. It appears your relationship is an extremely one-sided affair. A new study by Daniel Mills, a specialist in clinical animal behaviour at the University of Lincoln suggests something we humans have long suspected: that our cats don’t love us as much as we love them and are mostly just using us for what we can give them.

Well, duh. What was the tip-off? The way not one of them in the entire history of their species has ever responded to the names we continue to insist on giving them? Or how their behaviour seems to suggest a world-view that puts everything and everyone in it at their behest, either for simple utilitarian purposes or to serve their sense of humour– a sense of humour which often seems to be a combination of oddly smug/cruel?

While neither their sense of humour nor their smugness was directly measured in the study (though, interestingly enough, the idea that they may actually be deliberately ignoring their owners when having their names called was, in these experiments) their level of apathy and lack of attachment was.

The study was conducted by putting the animals into what is known as a “strange situation test”, during which they enter a room with their primary caregiver and are then left for a period of time to explore their environment. The owner is briefly joined by a stranger before departing, who then remains in the room with them until their caregiver returns. The reactions of the cats were measured against all of the different stimuli.

The experiment has been used before on both children and dogs, and out of the three groups, cats were undoubtedly the odd subject out. Both kids and dogs showed varying levels of anxiety at the disappearance of their care-giver, as well as happiness upon their return. They also displayed a tendency to stay physically close to their parents/owners, using them as a continuous reference point from which to venture back and forth into the environment around them. These signs can be seen as a clear display of affection and trust. Says Mills:


“In the case of dogs and in the case of children, the attachment actually means that they see the individual as a source of comfort, something that provides joy, and also a source of safety.”


Cats, on the other hand, displayed none of these signs, showing instead very high levels of apathy towards whoever was in the room with them– no more or less affection for their owner than the stranger, according to the study.

During the period of time when both human parties were in the space with them, as well, they were asked to ignore the cat. If the animal had the same type of attachment-relationship to its owner as the children and dogs, it would then set about using them as a reference point, says Mills.

None of the cats displayed this behaviour. They also failed to show any signs of distress or nervousness upon the departure of their owner, nor any indicators of a sense of security derived from their owners, such as excitement or affection.


“What our research shows so far is that the relationship between a cat and an owner is not what would be described as a secure-attachment style relationship,” said Mills. “Certainly, owners believe that their cats are very affectionate towards them, but we’re starting to think the cat views the owner more as a provider of resources than the provider of safety, which is the key feature of a secure attachment.”


Generally, cats are super secure with themselves and just don’t need you. Go figure.

So why, then, are they so widely loved by humans, often being owned en masse and dominating social networks and meme-streams all over the internet? Isn’t love a two-way street? Don’t we needy human beings need to feel some sense of reciprocation for the love we put out there?

Sure, cats are affectionate — when it’s convenient for them. If they can get a rub behind the ear or a can of tuna, they’ll be your best friend, purring until… well, until the cats come home. But what about their altruistic tendencies? Do they have any? We don’t ever see any police cats or seeing-eye-cats, now do we?

So is our love for them a type of weird inter-species idol worship? Like, their total indifference makes them part of the cool kids and we just want to be liked by them, no matter how badly they treat us? Or is there something deeper there? Something majestic we just can’t put our finger on? As stated in the famous bestseller The Power of Now:

I have lived with several Zen masters -- all of them cats. ~ Eckhart Tolle Click To Tweet


After all, if you’ve done any research into eastern religions, you know that non-attachment is one of the corner-stones of enlightenment, and that neediness in relationships, though usually survival-based at the very core, is intimately connected to psychological fears and not the direct, primal fight-or-flight type of fear that is normally the only type of fear that cats display.

But does this lack of neediness also indicate a lack of love as we understand it? According to Mills, they’re simply not sure: “Clearly cat-owners love cats. It’s difficult to say whether cats love back.” 

So in the end it would seem that the cat, ever a more complex creature than their simple, yet obviously good-natured cousin, the dog, remains an enigma.

Cats: jerks or zen masters? You decide.