Cats have a reputation for being distant and independent. However, new studies on the way they respond to their caregivers suggest that their social-cognitive skills and the depth of their human attachments were underestimated. Cats love their owners, they feel affection for them, and one way to show it is by licking them.
Many wonder why cats lick their owners' hands. And the answer is that there are several reasons for them to do that, including issues of love and fidelity similar to when felines lick each other.
We have to start talking about the language of cats. It is a key part of the animal, which is covered with hundreds of pointed spines, the papillae. For this reason, when our hands are licked they feel so rough. Language fulfills a wide range of functions. For example, when feeding, it is very useful for them to scrape the meat from the bones of their prey.
The first analysis to understand why cats lick their owners' hands should first aim to understand why cats lick each other. There are predominant factors: taking care of the coat, strengthening the bond and perceiving the smell.
Affection: Cats have many ways of communicating with humans, and one of them is licking. When we pet a cat, and then it licks our hand while it purrs, we can consider ourselves lucky because it means that it loves us and likes being with us.
Sweat: Incredible as it may seem, some cats like the slightly salty taste of sweat. Therefore, this may be another reason why the cat licks our hand.
Territory: cats are very territorial animals, so it is also possible that the cat wants to mark us. Their sense of smell is much more developed than that of humans, and through licking they leave small particles of odor.
When the cat licks, it waits for a response from the human. And it is always advisable to give him that pleasure to make him feel loved. To make him see that we love him, we also have to caress him with the hand that we have free. We can also comb it with a soft brush.
A 2017 study cited in the journal Current Biology shows that, like children and dogs, domestic cats form secure and insecure bonds with their human caregivers.
"This is the first time researchers have empirically shown that cats show the same attachment styles as babies and dogs," said the study's lead author, Kristyn Vitale, a researcher at Oregon State University's Human-Animal Interaction Laboratory. (USA).
"In both dogs and cats, attachment to humans may represent an adaptation of the bond between offspring and caregiver," Vitale continued.
"Our study indicates that when cats live in a state of dependency on a human, that attachment behavior is flexible and most cats use humans as a source of comfort," the researcher said.
The researchers had the cats participate in a test similar to those they perform on children and dogs to study their attachment behaviors.
During the test, each cat spent two minutes in a room with its caregiver. Then he was alone for two minutes. Finally, he returned to his owner for two more minutes.
Upon returning to their caregiver (after absence), cats with a "secure attachment" to the person were less stressed and balanced their attention between the human and their surroundings. For example, they continued to explore the room.
On the other hand, cats with an "insecure attachment" showed signs of stress, such as wagging their tail and licking their lips, and staying away from the person (avoidance) or clinging to them by jumping on their lap and not moving (ambivalence).
Small and adult cats participated in the study. Of 70 puppies, 64% were categorized as “securely attached” and 36% were shown to be “insecurely attached.”
The researchers wanted to find out if socialization training would change those percentages. But after a six-week course, there were no significant differences. "Once the attachment style between the cat and its caregiver is established, it remains relatively stable over time, even after training and socialization," Vitale stressed.
"Cats, like most domestic animals, retain certain juvenile traits into maturity, and continue to depend on humans for care," he added.
Then, the researchers tested 38 cats over one year of age. The percentages were very similar to those of the puppies: 66% showed a "secure attachment" and 34% an "insecure attachment."
It was surprising, Vitale said, to find how the ratio of secure to insecure attachments in the adult kitten and cat populations matched that of the human infant population. In humans, 65% of babies are securely attached to their caregiver.
"Cats that are insecure are likely to run and hide or appear to act distant," Vitale said. "For a long time it was thought that all cats behave this way. But most use their owner as a source of security. Your cat depends on you to feel safe when stressed," the researcher concluded.