How Do You Tell If Your Cat Is Securely Attached?

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory originates in the developmental psychology research of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1950s-1970s (Bretherton, 1992). The main idea is that the quality of bonds formed between infants and caregivers shapes emotional bonds throughout life. Bowlby and Ainsworth identified three main attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant.

John Bowlby emphasized the evolutionary basis of attachment behavior, while Mary Ainsworth focused on studying infant-caregiver bonds directly through the Strange Situation experiment. Their joint work established attachment theory as a leading framework in developmental psychology (Bretherton, 1992).

Attachment theory proposes that early caregiving experiences create internal working models or schemas about self-worth and expectations of others. These models then guide perceptions and behaviors in later relationships (Bretherton, 1992). For example, securely attached infants tend to develop into self-reliant adults who form trusting, interdependent bonds with others.

Signs of secure cat attachment

Cats with secure attachment tend to show signs of trust and comfort with their owner or caregiver. According to Deziroo, securely attached cats will typically greet their owner at the door when they return home and follow them around the house. They enjoy and seek out physical affection, feeling comfortable being held and petted. Securely attached cats also feel confident exploring their surroundings and environments, but will periodically return to check in with their owner.

When separated from their owner, a securely attached cat may become distressed and meow or cry out until reunited. As described by Science News, these behaviors all indicate that the cat feels a sense of safety and security with their caregiver and uses them as a secure base from which to explore.

Signs of anxious cat attachment

Cats with an anxious attachment style tend to be very clingy and demanding of their owner’s attention. They become extremely distressed when left alone, even for short periods of time. Anxious cats may engage in behaviors like excessive vocalization, urinating outside the litter box, destructive scratching, or aggression when separated from their owner (source1, source2).

Some specific signs of an anxious attachment style in cats include:

  • Following the owner from room to room and needing constant access
  • Excessive meowing or crying when the owner is out of sight
  • Urinating or defecating outside the litter box when alone
  • Scratching furniture or doors when left alone
  • Poor appetite or lack of interest in food when the owner is away (source3)

Anxiously attached cats become very stressed when their attachment figure (the owner) leaves them. They are unable to self-soothe and their distress escalates rapidly. These cats may benefit from anxiety reduction techniques and behavior modification to become more secure and independent.

Signs of avoidant cat attachment

Cats with an avoidant attachment style tend to avoid human interaction and act aloof. They are often unresponsive to affection or attention from their owners. These cats prefer to be independent and do not seem distressed when left alone. According to one study from Oregon State University, cats with an insecure avoidant attachment style may show signs of stress through behaviors like twitching their tail and licking their lips, but they do not seek comfort from their owner when distressed [1].

Avoidant cats are not motivated by praise or food rewards. They seem disinterested in bonding and do not solicit much affection or attention from their owners. An avoidantly attached cat may resist being picked up or held. These cats often hide when strangers come to the home. Overall, their behavior gives the impression that they are unaffected by the presence or absence of their human caretakers.

Why cat attachment matters

A cat’s attachment style has significant impacts on its wellbeing and relationship with humans. According to Deziroo, attachment styles affect a cat’s stress levels. Securely attached cats feel less anxious when their owner leaves, while insecurely attached cats become very stressed. High stress can weaken the immune system and cause behavioral issues like aggression or inappropriate elimination.

Attachment also influences the human-cat bond. Securely attached cats have an easier time communicating their needs to owners through meowing or body language. They are more receptive to training and socialization. Insecurely attached cats struggle to develop close relationships and can be aloof or attention-seeking.

Knowing a cat’s attachment style allows owners to tailor care in ways that reduce stress and strengthen the bond. For example, an anxious cat may benefit from more predictable routines and reassurance. Understanding attachment helps owners better meet their cat’s needs.

Assessing attachment style

The most reliable way to determine your cat’s attachment style is through careful observation of their behavior in various situations. Look at how your cat responds to stress, novel situations, greetings, goodbyes, and your presence or absence. Consider their early socialization period and environment as kittens, as this can influence attachment style. Some key things to look for include:

Securely attached cats feel comforted by your presence. They seek closeness when stressed but can also be independent. Anxiously attached cats cling to you constantly, react strongly when you leave, and have trouble settling down. Avoidantly attached cats do not seek much closeness and seem disinterested in interactions.

You can also do an experiment where you briefly separate from and reunite with your cat, noting their reaction. Secure cats will be moderately distressed then greet you warmly on return. Anxious cats become extremely upset but obsessively seek contact when reunited. Avoidant cats show little distress and avoid contact upon reunion.

Try doing activities with your cat like brushing and play, observing if they solicit contact or avoid it. Vary your responsiveness as well. Anxiously attached cats become distressed if you ignore them while avoidants are unfazed. Take note of all behaviors over time to determine your cat’s unique attachment style.


Improving anxious attachment

If your cat shows signs of anxious attachment, there are some things you can try to help them feel more secure when you are away.

Establish a consistent, positive routine with set feeding times, play times, grooming, and affection. This helps build confidence in the relationship. Provide calm praise and pets when your cat seeks attention. Ensure your cat has proper enrichment with toys, cat trees, and windows to look out. This prevents boredom and stress.

When leaving, set up distracting toys like food puzzles and ball tracks. You can also use synthetic feline pheromones via diffusers and sprays, which can have a calming effect. Start with very brief separations to build tolerance, then slowly increase the duration you are gone. Make returns low-key without overly stimulating play or affection.

Anxious cats may benefit from anti-anxiety medication prescribed by a vet in extreme cases. Seek professional advice if behavioral issues persist despite these efforts. With time and positive associations, an anxious cat can learn to be comfortable alone for periods of time.


Improving avoidant attachment

When a cat has an avoidant attachment style, they tend to avoid interactions and act indifferent towards their owner. However, there are some techniques that can help improve attachment and bonding. According to the Oregon State University study, it’s important to be patient and persistent when working to modify cat behavior [1].

Some tips for improving an avoidant cat attachment include:

  • Hand feeding portions of the cat’s meals – this helps build positive associations with the owner.
  • Engaging the cat in more interactive playtime with wand toys or laser pointers – this helps facilitate engagement.
  • Ignoring unwanted aloof behavior and rewarding desired affection or proximity with treats, praise or play.
  • Maintaining patience and persistence – behavior change takes time with cats.

With consistency, an avoidant cat can learn to become more comfortable with contact and interacting with their human caretaker. However, some cats are naturally more independent. The goal should be to build a bond where the cat sees the owner in a positive light, even if they don’t crave constant affection.

When to seek help

The majority of cats with insecure attachment can be helped at home with proper training and environmental adjustments. However, in severe cases of anxiety, separation distress, or avoidance, it may be necessary to seek professional assistance from your veterinarian or a cat behavior specialist.

Signs that your cat’s attachment issues may require outside intervention include:

  • Extreme clinginess, following you from room to room and demanding constant physical contact
  • Aggression, such as biting, scratching, or swatting when you attempt to leave or disengage
  • Destruction, like tearing up furniture, carpets, or drapes
  • Urine marking or loss of litter box training
  • Self-harming behaviors like excessive grooming, pulling out fur, or banging head against walls
  • Ongoing hiding and avoidance, unwilling to interact with you at all

If your cat displays any of these concerning behaviors frequently or persistently, consult your vet to rule out underlying medical issues. Then seek help from a certified cat behavior consultant. With customized training and behavior modification techniques, they can help you and your cat overcome the most severe attachment problems.


In recap, the main signs of secure cat attachment include confidence, curiosity, sociability, and ability to be soothed when stressed. Anxious attachment often shows in clinginess, neediness, excessive meowing and crying, and difficulty calming down. Avoidant attachment can present as indifference, aloofness, dislike of being held, and failure to greet caregivers.

Observing your cat’s behaviors and your daily routine together is key to identifying their attachment style. With patience, consistency, appropriate training, and meeting your cat’s needs, their attachment can become more secure over time. While some cats are naturally more independent, improving anxious or avoidant attachment is possible if you slowly acclimate them to contact, play, and care while respecting their boundaries.

If you have ongoing severe concerns about your cat’s attachment and well-being, it may be time to consult an animal behavior specialist. But small adjustments to your interactions can incrementally make your cat feel secure. With an understanding of cat psychology and your cat’s unique personality, your bond can strengthen and their true affectionate potential unfold.

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