Tag Archives: animal behaviour

Research shows why cats are more independent than dogs

Domestic cats do not generally see their owners as a focus of safety and security in the same way that dogs do, according to new research.

Relaxed cat and dog. While it is increasingly recognized that cats are more social and more capable of shared relationships than traditionally thought, this latest research shows that adult cats appear to be more autonomous -- even in their social relationships -- and not necessarily dependent on others to provide a sense of protection. Credit: © bodza2 / Fotolia

Relaxed cat and dog. While it is increasingly recognized that cats are more social and more capable of shared relationships than traditionally thought, this latest research shows that adult cats appear to be more autonomous — even in their social relationships — and not necessarily dependent on others to provide a sense of protection.
Credit: © bodza2 / Fotolia

The study by animal behaviour specialists at the University of Lincoln, UK, shows that while dogs perceive their owners as a safe base, the relationship between people and their feline friends appears to be quite different.

While it is increasingly recognised that cats are more social and more capable of shared relationships than traditionally thought, this latest research shows that adult cats appear to be more autonomous – even in their social relationships – and not necessarily dependent on others to provide a sense of protection.

The research, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, was led by Professor Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, along with Alice Potter – who studied as a postgraduate at Lincoln and now works with the Companion Animals Science Group at the RSPCA.

Professor Mills said: “The domestic cat has recently passed the dog as the most popular companion animal in Europe, with many seeing a cat as an ideal pet for owners who work long hours. Previous research has suggested that some cats show signs of separation anxiety when left alone by their owners, in the same way that dogs do, but the results of our study show that they are in fact much more independent than canine companions. It seems that what we interpret as separation anxiety might actually be signs of frustration.”

The Lincoln researchers carefully adapted the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test (SST), which has been widely used to demonstrate that the bond between young children or pet dogs with their primary carer can be categorised as a ‘secure attachment’ – where the carer is seen as a focus of safety and security in potentially threatening (or unfamiliar) environments.

The study observed the relationships between a number of cats and their owners, placing the pets in an unfamiliar environment together with their owner, with a stranger and also on their own. In varying scenarios, it assessed three different characteristics of attachment; the amount of contact sought by the cat, the level of passive behaviour, and signs of distress caused by the absence of the owner.

“Although our cats were more vocal when the owner rather than the stranger left them with the other individual, we didn’t see any additional evidence to suggest that the bond between a cat and its owner is one of secure attachment.”

“For pet dogs, their owners often represent a specific safe haven; however it is clear that domestic cats are much more autonomous when it comes to coping with unusual situations.”

Source:  University of Lincoln media release

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What are you looking at? (Dogs follow the human gaze)

Dogs are known to be excellent readers of human body language in multiple situations. Surprisingly, however, scientists have so far found that dogs do not follow human gaze into distant space. Scientists at the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna investigated how this skill of dogs is influenced by aging, habituation and formal training. The outcome: Gaze following to human gaze cues did not differ over the dogs’ lifespan, however, formal training was found to directly influence gaze following in dogs.


Gaze following to distant space has been documented in many species and is considered a basic response found in many taxa. Dogs may present a special case as the researchers found evidence that they are able to follow human gaze to objects such as food or toys, but not for the comparatively simpler task of following gaze into distant space.

Two possible reasons were offered to explain this phenomenon: One reason could be habituation. Dogs lose their innate gaze following response as they age, as they are frequently exposed to human gaze cues over their lifespan and slowly stop responding to them. Another reason could be formal training such as obedience, agility, and trick training may interfere with the dogs’ response to gaze cues, since dogs are usually trained to look at the owner, to wait for commands and ignore distractions.

What influences dogs’ gaze following response to human gaze cues?

Lead author Lisa Wallis and her colleagues at the Vetmeduni Vienna investigated 145 Border Collies aged 6 months to 14 years in the Clever Dog Lab in order to address the question of whether habituation, and/or training influences dogs’ gaze following response, and to determine, for the first time, how this ability changes over the course of a dog’s life by comparing groups of dogs of different ages. 

Dogs of all ages are able to follow human gaze

The scientists tested two groups of dogs with differing amounts of formal training over their lifespan. Both groups participated firstly in a test and control condition, where their initial gaze following performance was measured. The experimenter obtained the dogs’ attention using its name and the command “watch” after which the experimenter turned her head swiftly to look at the door of the testing room in the test condition, or looked down to the floor next to her feet in the control condition. If the dogs responded by looking at the door within two seconds in the test condition but did not look at the door in the control condition, a gaze following response was recorded.

Dogs’ tendency to follow human gaze is influenced by training for eye contact
Lisa Wallis with a Border Collie in the test room. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

Lisa Wallis with a Border Collie in the test room. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

The dog follows Wallis' gaze to the door. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

The dog follows Wallis’ gaze to the door. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogs which had a higher amount of formal training over their lifespan showed a lower gaze following response compared to dogs with little or no training. Similarly, short-term training also decreased dogs’ gaze following response and increased gaze to the human face.

The authors conclude that formal training had a stronger influence than aging or habituation on dogs’ gaze following response. This may explain why previous studies have failed to find a gaze following response when cues to distant space are used, and why in comparison to other species dogs perform relatively poorly in this task. The fact that the experimenter used strong attention-getting cues and provided contextual relevance by looking at a door may have also contributed to the positive results found in this study.

“From a very young age dogs have experience with doors when they live in human homes. The dogs develop an understanding that at any time an individual may enter the room, and therefore doors hold special social relevance to dogs”. – says Lisa Wallis.

In her current project, together with her colleague Durga Chapagain, Wallis is investigating the effects of diet on cognitive aging in older dogs. The scientists are still looking for dog owners who would like to participate in that long-term study (food is provided for free).

This research has been published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Source:  Vedmeduni Vienna media release