Secure Base test for cat

The stereotype of the aloof, independent cat is being challenged. Do our cats bond with us, their human caregivers? How does this attachment affect the well-being of our cats?

Studies into animal cognition suggest that cats show attachments to their caregivers, similar to those exhibited by human children and dogs.

Researchers at Oregon State University tested a group of cats and caregivers using The Secure Base Test. This test was developed to evaluate attachments to caregivers in apes and dogs; a variant is used with human children.

secure and insecure attachments

In the Secure Base Test for cats,  a cat and his owner were placed in a strange room for 2 minutes. After 2 more minutes, the owner would leave and the cat would be alone. The owner would return in another 2 minutes.

Cats were described as “securely” attached and “insecurely” attached. About 2/3 of the cats were “securely” attached. These cats were willing to explore the room with their owners present and continue to explore after the owners left.  When the owner returned, a “securely” attached cat would greet his owner but would continue to explore and play.

“Insecurely” attached cats were reluctant to explore and sat with their owners or hid in a corner. On return of the owners, some of these cats wanted physical contact with their owners while others avoided contact and did not seem to know what to do.

This makes me think of children at their first day of school – some kids are adventurous while others cling to their parents. So, it seems that our cats bond with us much like dogs and children.

Our personalities and our cats

Another study looked at how owner personality can affect a cat’s well-being. Over 3000 cat owners responded to a survey asking questions about the their personalities and how they characterized their cats’ behavior and health.

Owner personalities were evaluated using the Big Five test. The Big Five test assigns a score for each of the five traits below to describe an individual’s personality.

  1. Openness – willingness to embrace new experiences
  2. Conscientiousness – how responsible and organized a person is
  3. Extroversion – how social and outgoing you are
  4. Agreeableness – how cooperative, kind and trusting you are
  5. Neuroticism – prone to anxiety and depression


  1. Owners scoring high in the anxious (neurotic) category were more likely to have cats with medical and behavioral problems; these cats were often more aggressive, anxious or fearful
  2. Owners scoring high in openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, and agreeableness often had cats that were less fearful and anxious, and more friendly.

These results parallel human studies: Less anxious, open, and agreeable parents are able to provide their children with guidance and limits, without a controlling, authoritarian bias. Children are happier, cooperative, and have fewer behavior problems.


  • We can’t change who we are but we need to remember that because our cats bond with us, our moods and behavior, especially when we are stressed and anxious, can affect them. 
  • We need to avoid micromanaging our cats and let them be cats, doing the things cats do.
  • We need to try to see the world from the “feline purrspective”.


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Cats on leashes


The other day I was walking with Gus around the pond on the condo property. A neighbor came down the path – Gus approached him with his tail up, in greeting. The neighbor did not reciprocate but instead stopped a few feet away from Gus. Gus sat down and stayed still. The neighbor then walked by and muttered “ typical cat” as he passed by.

The neighbor clearly did not understand the tail up greeting. I wondered what he expected from Gus – was Gus supposed to come over wagging his tail? Gus approached with his tail up in friendly greeting. When the greeting was not returned (the neighbor did not offer his hand or get down on Gus’s level), Gus sat, and tried to figure out where the interaction was going – was it hostile or neutral? It certainly was not friendly.

Cats – Mysterious?

cat with tail upIndeed, we are more familiar with dogs’ body language than that of cats. People see dogs as more social than cats. Someone getting a puppy will plan to take it places, walk it and play with it.

Kittens often stay at home and don’t venture out into the outside world – we don’t have to walk them; after all they have litter boxes. Once the kitten grows into a cat, people often don’t “play” with her that much – after all she is getting older and seems to sleep most of the time. Many cat owners are not aware of the importance of “play” or hunting practice to a born hunter.

   cats – social and trainable

In the past few decades, cats have increased in popularity as pets.  Consequently, cat behavior and cat care have become popular subjects to study.  We have learned that cats are social animals and can be trained. The stereotype of the aloof, antisocial cat is starting to change. We are starting to change how we think about cats.

We have found that kittens learn most efficiently during the “sensitive period, 2-7 weeks of age. Kittens who are handled kindly and gently by a variety of humans during the sensitive period quickly learn to accept people and enjoy being with them. [What Makes a Friendly Cat? ]

In the veterinary world, the Cat-Friendly Practice initiative aims to make vet visits more pleasant for cats and their owners. The Cat Friendly Practice acknowledges that “ cats are not small dogs”. Handling techniques geared toward reducing stress and acknowledgement of the cat’s superlative sense of smell are highlights of this program.

Many of us have had more time at home with our pets in the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is an increasing trend toward “humanizing” cats and dogs, celebrating their birthdays and giving them Christmas presents.   While giving toys or tasty food on special days is harmless, we need to avoid treating cats as small humans in fur suits. They are CATS, a different species with their own behaviors and ways of communicating. [The Cat-Human Bond]

    change how we think about cats

A quiet revolution is happening – be part of it. Change how we think about cats. Show people that cats are social and part of the family and that we can communicate with them by training them.

  • Train your cat to walk on a leash or ride in a backpack or stroller
  • Train your cat to a place in the living room where he can safely hangout while people are visiting
  • Video your cat sitting on command and post on social media
  • Are you or someone you know getting a kitten? Enroll in a kitten kindergarten or get a group of friends together to do your own!

So take on the challenge.  Train your cat – become a “cat whisperer” and change how we think about cats!

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cat with toy box

How do I know if my cat has a good quality of life? Take a minute and look at your cat’s life to see if the positive experiences outweigh the negative ones.

Quality of Life or QOL is just what it says – what is the quality of health, comfort and happiness experienced by an individual human or animal? Assessing QOL can help you decide which treatment to choose for a sick pet or help you improve your cat’s welfare.

QOL tends to come up when a pet is ill and euthanasia is being considered. Because of this association with end of life, evaluating quality of life is often neglected at other times in life. 

When my older cat was not doing well recently, I was thinking about her QOL.  It occurred to me that QOL is something that we should be aware of and assess regularly. It is a good idea to evaluate this when we feel our cat is healthy and happy so that we have a comparison for when he is sick, in pain, or feeling insecure or threatened.

If a cat has a good quality of life, he will have many positive experiences and have few negative experiences.

Let’s start with a cat’s basic needs…

  • Every cat needs a safe place – somewhere she can go, away from other pets and humans
  • He needs food, water and litter boxes that he can use without  being interfered with by other cats, dogs or humans
  • A stable environment allows a cat to feel confident and secure.  This environment is predictable, without too much physical change, and offers opportunities for positive experiences, say outdoor access to a backyard.
  • Interactions with humans and other pets should be pleasant and not frightening (so tell the kids not to run and shriek at the cat!)
  • Your cat is a born hunter so he needs to have opportunities for predatory activity – either through play or foraging toys.

How do i know if my cat has a good quality of life?

In addition to the basic needs, what about the needs of the individual cat? Pain, emotional state, presence of strange humans and other pets or environmental stress can impact quality of life. Let’s look at the Quality of Life of 16 year old Athena.

positive experiences

Cat with automatic toy

  1. Athena sleeps at the foot of the bed or under the covers when it is cold.
  2. She likes the treats she gets before and after having her twice daily thyroid medication.
  3. She likes to scratch on the scratching posts –  in the bedroom and by the door to the backyard.
  4. She will nap in her heated bed when it is cold or on the bed upstairs when it is warm.
  5. When the weather is nice, she will go out into the backyard.
  6. In the evenings, she enjoys a grooming session followed by some play with  a fishing pole toy or laser pointer.
  7. Her day finishes up with some dental treats.


Negative experiences

liquid medication for cat

  1. Athena gets another medication in the morning – a bitter liquid which she does not like.
  2. She does not like the other cats and prefers to avoid them
  3. She has arthritis and her joints hurt.
  4. Sometimes she is nauseated – she will approach her food, sniff it, but not eat.

Athena enjoys about 2 x as many positive experiences as negative experiences in her day. Although she suffers from arthritis pain and is not fond of other cats, she is still able to enjoy the positive things her environment offers her, such as going outdoors and engaging in predatory play. Overall, her QOL is good but here are some improvements.

  1. Giving food paste (for example, chicken baby food) before and after her bitter medication helps “get the bad taste out  of her mouth”. We end the medicating process on a positive note with her favorite dry treats.
  2. So that Athena can avoid the other cats, she eats from her own microchip-controlled feeder.  The other cats have learned that the feeder does not open for them.
  3. Athena receives an injection of joint protecting supplement to help alleviate her joint pain. She also has steps up to the bed and a heated bed to nap in.
  4. If she seems nauseated, she receives medication.



  • You want your cat’s life to have more positive experiences than negative experiences.
  • Make a list and see what the positive/negative balance is. Are there more positives than negatives? How can you improve things?
  • Compare and update lists before you take your cat in for his annual or bi-annual vet exam.
  • By being aware of your cat’s daily behaviors, you will be able to provide medical care and supportive care when needed, and preempt behavior issues.

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OLder cat coming dowm stairs

Arthritis refers to inflammation and stiffness in the joints. As humans and cats age, the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones wears down. Osteoarthritis in humans most often affects our hands, knees, hips and spine; in cats, it is most prevalent in the hip, hock and elbow joint.


Your cat can’t tell you verbally that he is painful. You must watch his body language and behavior.Cat at top of stairs


  • Do you detect a limp or stiffness as he moves?
  • Is your cat more grumbly, maybe even aggressive when you groom or pet him?
  • Is she hunched-up instead of curled-up when sleeping?


  • Is she just not as active?
  • Does he still jump up on the bed, chairs, or counters?
  • Does he still use his scratching posts?
  • Does she still climb up the cat tower?
  • Does she still play with toys?

If your cat is still doing his regular cat things, we now need to consider HOW he is doing those things.


  • Does she still spring up on tables, counters, landing gracefully on all four feet? Or, does he pull himself up with his front claws to get on the bed?
  • Does she jump on a chair first and then go to the table instead making one jump from the floor?
  • Does he go down in one jump or in stages?


  • Does he run smoothly up and down the stairs or does he go up and down the stairs a step at a time? Does he “bunny-hop” up with his back legs?
  • Does she stop for a break halfway?


  • When he swats his catnip mouse about, is he still able to pass it smoothly from paw to paw or does he seem slow and stiff?
  • Can she still snatch the toy in mid-air?


  • Is she not grooming as much as before? Are you noticing some mats forming in her coat?
  • Any litter box accidents?
  • Is his appetite still good?

If you answer “yes” to some of these questions, it is possible that your cat has arthritis and may be having some pain and stiffness in her joints.

Pain and discomfort that happens while you are doing something usually results in your avoiding that activity. Chronic pain can affect all the systems in the body, affecting appetite, sleep, and how well your bowels work. Treating your cat’s arthritis will improve his quality of life.

My cat has arthritis – WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT it?

A veterinary exam is needed to diagnose arthritis and to come up with a treatment plan.

Cats can be difficult to assess in the veterinary hospital. They are out of their environment at the hospital and are reluctant to play with toys or even just to move around. This is where, you, the cat guardian, can help your vet help your feline friend.

Smartphones nowadays can take high resolution video. We often have our phones with us, so take some video of your kitty going up the stairs, jumping up on the bed, or jumping down from her favorite spot. You can send the video to your vet to help with the diagnosis and treatment plan for your cat.


  • Take the video with your phone in the “landscape” orientation. If you video with the phone vertical, the video frame will have black borders on either side.
  • Have “LOTS” of light. The more light the better particularly in stairwells. Bring some of those floor lamps in there.
  • Most phone camera default to “autofocus”. You may need to FOCUS your phone. Tap on the screen where your “subject” (your cat ) is or will be – your camera will focus on that area; some exposure controls may also show up; adjust as needed.



If your cat is diagnosed with arthritis, your vet can recommend a treatment plan. It may include:

Cat going down stairsIt is great that you are being proactive with your cat’s health! Arthritis is part of getting old but let’s try to make your cat’s senior years as “golden” as possible. You can find out more about your cat and arthritis at the Osteroarthritis Checklist for Cats.

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