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Do I have an unhealthy attachment to my cat?

People with insecure attachment styles tend to have strong emotional bonds with pets, study finds

(Image by Cindy Parks from Pixabay)

New research on German dog owners finds that people with stronger relationships to their pets display more symptoms of mental disorders and distress, but proposes that this link may be fully accounted for by insecure attachment to other humans. The study was published in BMC Psychiatry.

Pet ownership has long been linked to better mental health and lower levels of negative conditions such as loneliness and depression, both in the general population and in patients with physical and mental disorders. However, such findings have not been consistent as other studies reported zero or even negative effects of pet ownership on physical and mental health.

A different line of research has linked emotional attachment to pets to problems in interpersonal relationships. One such study found that people with stronger attachment to pets reported lower levels of social support and higher levels of loneliness and depression. Another one found strong attachment to pets to be associated with childhood trauma and certain psychopathological traits. These results led authors of the new study to focus on the relationship between interpersonal attachment styles (i.e. what kinds of relationships with others are we comfortable in), attachment to pets and mental health.

Study author Johanna Lass‑Hennemann and her colleagues conducted an online survey of 610 German dog owners to test the hypothesis that stronger emotional attachment to one’s dog is associated with higher mental health burden and insecure attachment to humans. They also aimed to “disentangle the link between emotional attachment to pets and human attachment and their perspective associations with mental health burden.”

The researchers recruited respondents by distributing the link to their survey on webpages for dog owners and on social media. Study participants recruited in this way were mostly females (93%) between 18 and 73 years of age. They were asked to provide certain demographic data and dog-related information about themselves, but also to complete assessments of attachment to pets (Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale, LAPS), interpersonal attachment styles (Revised Adult Attachment Scale, R-AAS) and of symptoms of mental disorders and distress or the mental health burden, to use the words of authors (Brief Symptom inventory, BSI).

Respondents who were more strongly attached to their dogs reported more symptoms of mental disorders and distress. Additionally, a stronger emotional attachment to one’s dog was associated with lower comfort with depending and trusting others (the dependence component of interpersonal attachment) and to a greater fear of being rejected and unloved (the anxiety component of interpersonal attachment). These were, in turn, associated with more pronounced symptoms of mental disorders and distress (mental health burden).

Results also indicated that interpersonal attachment styles may be mediating the association between the emotional attachment to the dog and mental health burden, as it fully accounted for the link between the later two factors. Authors conclude that “stronger emotional attachment to pets might reflect a compensatory attachment strategy for people who were not able to establish secure relationships to other people during childhood. Those people may build more close relationships with pets that might be perceived as more reliable and less threatening.”

These result highlight important links between emotional attachment and mental health. However, this was a correlation study and, therefore, it cannot be the basis for cause-and-effect interpretations. Almost all of the participants were women and the results might differ somewhat on a sample of men. The authors also noted that the assessment method for emotional attachment to dog used in the study assesses the intensity of attachment, but not the attachment style. Assessing the style of attachment to pet alongside intensity might provide novel insights in future studies.

The paper, “The relationship between attachment to pets and mental health: the shared link via attachment to humans“, was authored by Johanna Lass‑Hennemann, Sarah K. Schäfer, M. Roxanne Sopp, and Tanja Michael.

14 Signs You Have An Unhealthy Attachment To Your Dog

Clubs? Gallery Openings? Even just a Bachelor party ten minutes from your place? HARD. PASS. You have a fluff ball of love to get back to and no one will stop you!

“Hey we’re all going to hit happy hour because they give away free drinks until 8 PM!”
“Oh I totally would but like…Bella needs me and I’d rather have her shed all over my black pants and slobber all over my arms right after I’ve showered so…”

2. You show off their pictures like they’re a child.

Someone is showing an adorable video of their two-year-old going to the bowling alley for the first time? Step aside. You found a plethora of tiny hats on etsy and spent a good chunk of your day off posing your dog with various top hats and sombreros. Everyone needs to see it, obvs. Yes that includes the Target checkout lady. Don’t judge.

3. You worry about them like crazy when you’re out of town.

It makes PERFECT sense for the dog sitter to let you FaceTime with them. Sure, they just end up barking at the screen because you’re not totally positive that they can even see things that are happening on aluminosilicate glass but STILL. It helps your heart and you only end up crying a little every time.

4. You swear they have opinions.

The scene in Best in Show where the pet shop employee has the audacity to suggest that a fish is the same as a bee hit way too close to home. Your dog would absolutely be able to tell the difference and would not have it. People these days…

5. Your dog goes to the spa more than you do.

Your roots are showing off more than the Kardashians on a yacht in Greece but Ivy needs a feather trim and also an ear cleaning? What to do, what to do? Well that four-legged love machine is going to get first dibs. It may seem ridiculous that a bath, haircut, ear cleaning, and nail file for a dog costs as much as a highlight; but beauty is PAIN, darling. Species be damned.

6. You’ve kicked people out of bed for them. Literally.

“Um no…there’s not room for you here. She sleeps at my feet and like…we have a system that doesn’t include a third party. I can call you an Uber I guess?”

7. But if they pay attention to someone more than you, you get some serious jealousy going on.

How DARE they go belly up for someone they’ve known for all of five minutes. Don’t they realize that you’re the one who has fed them every day for their entire lives?! Don’t they know about the panic that went over you when they were getting their first round of shots?! This is truly what betrayal feels like.

8. You’re on a first name basis with the vet because you freak out.

Any sign of something being off and you call the vet. You’ve texted her pictures, you’ve panicked about a chocolate chip, you’ve even considered taking in a puke sample because something was clearly off. Thank god for wellness plans because otherwise, you’d be totally broke.

9. You would never consider calling them “our dog” even if in a LTR.

There is no “our” about this situation. If this relationship goes to shit there will be no doggy visitation rights. This is YOUR dog. There’s nothing more to say about it.

10. You have more meaningful conversations with your dog than anyone.

What’s that? They don’t talk back because they don’t have the cognitive ability to understand what you’re rambling on about? Clearly you’ve never discussed the in’s and out’s of the Presidential campaign with your dog and honestly, I feel sorry for you. I came to some pretty big epiphanies about my career while brainstorming with my pup. Just sayin’.

11. You refuse to apologize for their bad behavior.

His barking is not annoying, that’s just him expressing himself. Her crazy compulsion to hoard socks is not a bad habit, it’s just quirky. They aren’t being awful by rolling in the grass straight after getting a bath, it CLEARLY feels good. Gosh guys, lighten up.

12. You would bring them everywhere if you could.

It’s a shame that not all dogs are as portable as tiny dogs. It would make it so much easier to bring her to brunch if she fit inside of a purse. I still refuse to get a dog stroller but like…I get it. Won’t buy one, but I get it.

13. It’s the OTHER dog that has the problem, not your’s.

There is such a thing as dog bullying in the dog world but your dog could NEVER be the bully. They’re just barking because the other one barked first. DUH.

14. You genuinely consider them your best friend.

Through thick and thin they’ve been there for you. Friends may come and go but their love is truly unconditional. They are always happy to see you, and always there to be cute as hell and put their head on your knee when you’re sad. They deserve the $10 chicken jerky because they’re honestly the best. And you will never be as good of a a person as your dog.

Even Shy Cats Are Bonded to Their Human Caregivers


Cats don’t tend to be the most effusively affectionate animals, but that doesn’t mean our feline friends are indifferent to their owners. According to a new study in Current Biology, cats display distinct signs of attachment to their caregivers, much in the way that dogs and human babies do.

The team behind the study replicated a test that was developed in the 1970s to measure parent-infant bonds. One part of the original experiment involved placing a mother and baby in an unfamiliar room, where they would stay together for a few minutes, and then the mother would leave. Researchers watched to see how the baby reacted, and what his or her response was upon the mother’s return. “Securely attached” babies, according to that experiment, would be distressed when their mother leaves, but easily soothed upon her return. They also used their moms as a “safe base” to explore the unfamiliar environment. Babies with “insecure attachments” were divided into two categories. Those with “insecure-ambivalent attachments” were difficult to soothe when distressed, and exhibited clinginess to the parent. Those with “insecure-avoidant attachments” were not distressed when their moms left the room, and didn’t orient themselves to their parent while exploring the unfamiliar environment.

This model has been used to assess attachment security in dogs, but lead author Kristyn Vitale, a researcher at Oregon State University’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab, and her colleagues were curious as to how cats would fare. So they assembled 79 kittens and had them each spend two minutes in a new space with their owner. Then the owner would leave for two minutes, followed by a two minute reunion period.

Many kittens did show signs of distress—like unhappy vocalizations—when their humans left. The researchers weren’t able to classify nine of the kittens, but 70 did seem to fit a distinct attachment style. About 64.3 percent were “securely attached” to their owner, meaning that they appeared less stressed upon the human’s return to the room and balanced their time between giving attention to their human and exploring the new space. Around 36 percent of kittens continued to show signs of stress upon their owners’ return, and were classified as “insecure”; some clung to their owner and refused to check out the room, leading the researchers to classify them as “ambivalent,” while others steered clear of their humans altogether and were classified as “avoidant.”

Crucially, the proportion of secure-to-insecure cats roughly followed the pattern seen in both children and dogs. Or as Vitale tells Gizmodo’s Ed Cara, “The majority of cats are securely attached to their owner and use them as a source of security.” These results remained consistent when the researchers tested both kittens that had undergone six-week socialization training, and a group of 38 older cats.

“Once an attachment style has been established between the cat and its caregiver, it appears to remain relatively stable over time, even after a training and socialization intervention,” Vitale explains.

Speaking to Cara, Vitale cautions that the experiment doesn’t tell us much about whether cats “like” or “dislike” their owners—only that many seem to look to humans for security when they feel stressed out. Daniel Mills, an expert in veterinary behavioural medicine at the University of Lincoln who was not involved in the research, tells the Guardian’s Nicola Davis that it’s also hard to know whether the cats’ responses were particular to their individual owners, or whether they were simply finding comfort in a human presence. The new study, after all, did not test how the cats responded to a stranger.

But as Vitale points out, it would make sense for domesticated cats to have developed attachments to the humans who care for them. “In both dogs and cats, attachment to humans may represent an adaptation of the offspring-caretaker bond,” she says. “Attachment is a biologically relevant behavior.”

And though your cat might not lose its mind when you walk into the room, it could still be bonded to you. “Despite fewer studies [of feline attachments],” the study authors note, “research suggests we may be underestimating cats’ socio-cognitive abilities.”

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