Science Can’t Tell You If Your Cat Loves You (Yet)

All over Facebook recently, I’ve been seeing headlines along the lines of Your Cat Hates You (warning: autoplay). They link to this clip discussing a psychological study by animal behaviorist Professor Daniel Mills at University of Lincoln. The study replicates earlier research on babies, demonstrating that babies are attached to their mothers by watching their behavior when brought into a room, left alone with a stranger, and then reunited with their mothers.

Mills first replicated the study using dogs, and found that dogs reacted very similarly to babies. Cats, on the other hand, reacted very differently. While babies and dogs displayed distress at realizing their mother/owner had disappeared, cats didn’t seem to care very much and went on playing with the stranger. When the mother/owner returned, the babies and dogs ran to them while the cats acknowledged their return with a glance and then returned to playing.

Mills states that the research is not complete yet, though the trends I mention above have already emerged. He believes this shows that while dogs are attached to their owners and see them as a source of love and protection, cats seem to see their owners only as a source of food.

As translated by the media and every “dog person” in your Facebook feed: your cat hates you.

Personally, I would love to see this experiment recreated with a teenager. Parent and teen enter the room. Teen sees a Playstation 4 in the corner and proceeds to play with it. A stranger enters and picks up the second controller. While the teen is distracted, the parent leaves the room. The teen does not notice. Eventually, the parent returns. The teen does not notice.

Headline: Science Proves Your Teen Hates You.

An alternate experiment could involve two adult best friends with the exact same situation described above. Headline: Science Proves Your Best Friend Hates You.

Let’s be clear: I think the study is interesting and has value. But, the way it’s interpreted by the media and general public is, frankly, embarrassing. I’ve never really understood the “dog person” vs “cat person” fight, and why I’d have to choose one over the other (in much the same way that I was baffled when someone first told me I could like either The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, but not both, god forbid). What’s interesting, here, is that cats are very different creatures than dogs, but humans have developed an equal fondness for living with both. How do we measure things like their happiness, or their intelligence, or their total amount of output of love, when they’re so very different? These are interesting questions and I hope the research helps explore them.

The idea of a cat seeing their owner not as a provider of safety is particularly interesting to me. When I take my cat to the vet, he’s very scared and will burrow his head in the crook of my arm. Is he doing it because I make him feel a little safer? Or is it just a convenient place for him to burrow? I do think if I let him go, he’d careen around the room knocking things over until he found a bowl to hide under. When a stranger enters our home, our two cats don’t run to us for safety – they run under the bed. Is that something particular to cats? It’s been ages since I’ve had a dog, so I can’t really compare.

Anyway, I think even Professor Mills is a bit to blame for the insipid response to his research, judging by his soundbites in which he simplifies things to the point of saying that cats probably see you as a provider of food and it’s hard to say if they return feelings of affection. For people who have cats, it’s quite easy to say that the feelings of affection are returned. My cat, Fry, comes to bed every evening and crawls under the bed covers, purring and licking my face before collapsing into a puddle of fluffy love. He’s not doing it for food, as there’s always food in his dish anyway. He could get more warmth by curling up on top of the heater. So what does he get out of it? I’d call it love. I’d be (sincerely) interested in what an animal behaviorist would call it, and how it might differentiate from a child crawling under the covers to cuddle his parent.

Here’s the video:

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

Related Articles


  1. Thank you, Rebecca, for writing about this!! One thing I noticed in the video is that when the dog owner comes back in, the stranger is mostly ignoring the dog, but when the cat owner comes in, the stranger is *playing* with the cat. I don’t have a lot of confidence in their methods. Also of note, it hasn’t been published yet. Press release can’t show much of anything but it can create a lot of buzz with a title like, “Your cat hates you.”

  2. Rebecca,
    Thanks for the read. I never understood why we needed to choose between being a dog person and being a cat person either. I have always had both and the affection is different from both animals. I think comparing a dog to a baby is a perfect comparison. My husband always says ours is like a codependent five year old. Of course she get distressed when we leave the room. She is like our shadow.

    Our cats on the other hand are definitely much more independent, but if we are gone for an extended period of time, they let us know when we return that we are missed. They also show us affection, but it is usually more on their terms than on ours. However, I fully believe that they are not just beings living in our house waiting for their next meal (we always have full bowls for them too).

    I kind of wish the debate on whether cats or dogs are better would stop. I appreciate both in different ways.

  3. I wonder if there’s some culture disparity here, too. Clearly, they are in the UK, and they treat their pets a little differently than we might in the US. For example, they let their cats roam around outside much of the time, whereas, we in the US, might keep them indoors regularly, for fear of predators or cars. I would think this would lead to more independent cats (though, all cats are independent) who are not as worried about their owner.

    I also like what Rebecca said about teenagers and adults not having the same kind of attachment, because they are not as dependent as a child for shelter. Why can’t cats be the same way? In fact, why are we judging cats based on behavior from children and dogs? Cats aren’t social animals like humans and dogs, they have their own way of being.

    Also, I believe that my cats love me, as much as a cat can. They clearly seek out affection and comfort.

  4. The video does seem to be just one example of each. It mentions performing the experiment with 20 cats. Which still seems like a pretty small sample to go by. Dogs and cats have plenty of variety of personality, and variety of relationships with humans.
    I do have a cat. One of the big reasons is that more independent nature compared to a dog since I’m away quite a bit of most days, what with work or occasional trips. But despite all the quirkiness there’s certainly some sort of attachment beyond the need for food and occasional grooming.

  5. We have three cats, and each is unique and each of them definitely shows love and affection for us as more than just food providers. I could go on about each, but I’ll just write about June. June is the sweetest cat on the planet, probably because she is too stupid to be mean. I mean, she is really dumb. But she is the most wonderful little cat you could imagine.

    She sleeps very deeply (she often doesn’t wake for food being put out, and her hearing is fine), so she usually doesn’t wake for the car pull up like the other two, and doesn’t hear the door open, so she doesn’t come running, so when she comes downstairs, still drowsy, she wanders over to me and hops up beside me. She will then get my attention by pawing at my arm or face, and won’t stop until I have petted her to her satisfaction, at which point she will curl up and rest her chin on my arm and sit. And stare. Vacantly. She sometimes drifts off to sleep. It is incredible how much a six pound cat’s head can weigh when it falls asleep.

    She may decide to curl up between me and my keyboard or beside me on the couch for a nap, but she will be my companion for most of the day if I am working from home. She alternates between me, a window hammock, getting a little food (which might potentially scare her), picking a fight with either of the much larger cats, racing around the house and potentially colliding with something, or disappearing into one of her many hiding spaces. One of the cutest things she does is to snuzzle her face against my nose, between one to three times in a row. If that isn’t kitten love, I don’t know what is.

    I was lucky enough to be a faculty driver (free vacation road trip!) on a paleontology field class a couple of years ago. Over the two weeks that I was gone, June searched the house for me for two days and then sulked for a week. She finally sought out my wife (who normally gets very little of June’s attention, which is fine, because the other two cats focus on her) to be consoled in her time of grief. June finally accepted that I was gone, that I had gone to the store for catnip and just never came back, and she started to act a little happier for the rest of my time away. When I got home, she seemed a little confused, checked to see if it was really me, and then spent as much time sitting on me as she could for the next several days.

    Somebody didn’t do a good job with experimental design.

  6. My cat won’t eat if I’m not home. When I’m gone for more than a couple days, he gets very anxious and starves himself. He refuses to eat what my friends feed him and hides in a corner hissing at everyone until I return. Then he’s back to his usual purring self.

    Thanks to the rigorous scientific research of Mills et al, I’ve finally learned the truth. My cat is a dog in disguise.

  7. I was pretty put off by this article as well. What bothered me most was the ‘9NEWS psychologist’ categorically declaring that children with the avoidant attachment style would “grow up and have difficulty attaching to other people, so forming friendly and romantic relationships will be difficult. They will also have problems with being manipulative and seeing other humans as a “provider of resources” or only as a means to an end”.

    Even if that were true and not a gross overgeneralization, I really can’t believe that the scientists would seriously assert that because the normal attachment display of cats resembles an abnormal attachment style of humans, then all the negative consequences for humans having poor attachments are exactly how cats relate to us. This is just click bait, not science.

    *Note: cat jumped on my lap to cuddle while writing this

  8. Funny, I had the exact same reaction (cats seeking comfort & showing affection) and the same comparison (babies craving security vs adults or spouses who are more independent).

    So maybe it shows that dogs behave like babies and cats behave like adults :)

  9. We have two cats, one indoor only and the other is a part time outdoor cat. When we let the outdoor cat in for the night or to eat he will stand around and meow until he gets picked up, squeezed, and given some attention. The smaller cat is more passive but when he’s awake he’s always in the same room you’re in.

  10. My old seal point, Katt, was strictly indoors, and was very affectionate and devoted. If we had to go out of town for a few days, we got a lecture when we got home. She would walk back and forth in front of us, meowing. “This is the thanks I get, after all I’ve done for you. I’ve worked my paws to the bone…”

    If she was really mad she would turn her back on you and sit down.

  11. yeah I can’t figure out why you’d project the emotional states and behavioral problems of the young of a very social animal that requires extensive and intensive parental care on adults of a largely solitary animal.

  12. I used to have a cat back in the days when I still had roommates and had to take frequent business trips for my job. My roommates always said that my cat would disappear somewhere in the apartment and they wouldn’t see her for days (even though her food dish would empty out every day) whenever I left with luggage. But, as soon as my car pulled up in front of the apartment building, she would be out and whining at the door. When I walked in, however, she would “ignore” me for several hours until, apparently, she felt that I had been properly chastised for leaving her. Then it was all cuddles and purrs.

    I have 2 dogs now, and I don’t feel any more loved by them than I ever did by my cat.

  13. When a stranger enters our house, my cat (Fortran) runs under the bed too. But when the stranger has gone, she comes and sits on me, presumably for reassurance. Fortran treats me and my wife very differently. She comes to me for reassurance, cuddles. play and to mew at me to inform me something is mystifyingly wrong in her world. She goes to Liz to demand food and – oddly – tends to sleep on her side of the bed at night, even though she hasn’t once sat on her knee during the day.

    My point is that cats are clearly not indifferent to people. They recognise them and treat them differently. Fortran treats me with more apparent affection than she does my wife (IN YOUR FACE, LIZ), but she also attacks me quite a lot more.

    Is this the same thing we’d call affection? That a dog would call affection? Who cares?

    I don’t know whether Fortran would miss me if I were gone. But I do know she appreciates me to some degree when I’m not. When she comes to sit on me when – as Rebecca says – there are warmer and more foody places and when she runs up to me and puts her front paws on me, stares into my eyes and mews because she obviously has something to tell me before running off, then I know that I’m an important part of her life.

  14. On the more evil side, I’ve been in a household where a cat physically attacked someone who was having a loud argument with the person to which it was most bonded. A cat is dead meat if it has the gumption to attack a great ape, so that thing must have had a serious love-on for its homie.

    Cat abasement rituals – rolling around on their backs, purring, making funny noises at you, when there’s already food in the dish. Why do some cats prefer to eat when their human is watching? It’s pretty clear they can be socially bonded with humans, and if they don’t love us, then they don’t love each other.

    Then there’s the promotion of human feelings above that of other animals. Do humans love each other? As Haddaway said, what is love? I call ten kinds of bullshit on this, even as I pathetically bite the linkbait by commenting here…

  15. If these “researchers” where at all correct, it would make the cat we have right now a major mutant. I am **not** the one that usually feeds her, but she will sit outside my door and meow if I don’t get up when she wants me, won’t bloody leave me alone, when she decides she wants attention, and, unless napping, just about won’t leave me alone at all. Definitely times when, if she didn’t have feline leukemia, I desperately wish we had a second cat, so she had someone else to bug all the time. lol

    That being said… in my experience, most dogs are more needy, are very bad at entertaining themselves, get pampered to the extent that they obsess over being left alone, and, if they do run to the owner, its *temporary*, if the visitor is more interesting. Some dogs don’t act that way. Some cats, end up acting almost like dogs (ours will certainly go looking to see what someone else is doing, almost no matter what ‘play’ may be going on, just on seeming principle.

    So.. still more, “We are observing something, but have no dang clue what it actually is, so lets guess randomly!”

  16. If someone is cognitively different than you then it means they’re an ass.

    Hey, the logic has worked for autistic people for decades! Why -not- apply it to cats?

    /sarcasm sarcasm

    One thing that I’d point out is that dogs act this way to each other. They’ll run over, smell the dog, wag their tail, and carry on in a way that shows they’re obviously happy to meet back up with a friend. A cat will generally sniff the other cat, then go back to what they’re doing. And when I’m meeting up with a cat acquaintance I do let them sniff the back of my hand, but if they’re busy I don’t expect them to just drop what they’re doing and shower me with attention.

  17. My cat needs me. When I come home she meows and runs toward me at the door purring. She curls up in a ball next to me at bedtime. She is always under my foot or sleep/sitting near me. When she had surgery a year ago she couldn’t get into bed with me and my husband because she was not allowed to jump. She was so upset by this that she whined at night. Finally, I just picked her up and put her in the bed and she settled right in with constant purrs of happiness. Would she get along without me? Probably. However, I submit that any animal including a human could get along just fine without its parents.

  18. “He believes this shows that while dogs are attached to their owners and see them as a source of love and protection, cats seem to see their owners only as a source of food.”

    Daniel Mills should meet my older cat. She follows me around, comes when she’s called, loves physical contact with me and likes to sleep cuddled in my arms. She eats from a programmable food dispenser that holds a two-month supply of food so she never has to look to me as her daily food source (as long as I don’t let the dispenser get empty).

  19. I have to wonder about the design and adherence to standard research protocols. They haven’t published yet, so I can’t check it, but a study of cats’ attachment behaviors has already been done:

    If that link is inaccessible, try this one:

    They came to the opposite conclusion, that cats DO demonstrate attachment behaviors. I have to wonder why Mills doesn’t address this study in the video (again, he might when he publishes – trying to determine ANYTHING from incomplete studies is problematic, and I agree with RW that’s it’s really rather irresponsible of Mills to make conclusive-sounding statements) – I found it after 30 seconds on Google looking for *Mills’s study*, so presumably he knows about it if he did the appropriate literature review. The framing doesn’t suggest that anything has been done on this subject yet, though it has. Overturning previous results is a big deal, and I find it odd it isn’t mentioned in the video. Bad science, bad reporting, bad-faith science or reporting, or some combination thereof?

    1. Edwards et al. even cite previous studies looking at similar things, including two studies on cats and separation anxiety. Something is wrong here, folks.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button