Study: Link Between Anxiety and Bonding With Cats

Caitlin Dempsey


Woman wearing a pink flannel shirt working on laptop with grey and white cat on couch.

A recently published study in the peer-reviewed journal iScience by researchers from the University of Helsinki surveyed pets owners to understand the link between mental health and types of pet relationships. Past cat behavioral research has affirmed that pet ownership can be beneficial in many ways to humans. However, not all bonding is healthy. This latest research looked at compromised bonds between owners and cats which can introduce stress and lower the quality of life.

Attachment theory, which is often used to understand human relationships, can also be used to study the relationships between humans and their dogs or cats. The researchers used a method called structural equation modeling (SEM) to study how the personalities of people, dogs, and cats are related to the mental health of the pet owners, the pets’ behavior problems, and the way owners form emotional bonds with their pets.

In particular, two aspects of insecurity in human-cat relationships were analyzed. The first was attachment-related anxiety, which is the tendency to be concerned that something bad might happen to the pet and need for a high level of closeness. The second was attachment-related avoidance which is the need for physical and emotional distance from the pet as well as difficulties in seeking support from the pet.

Graphic with muted washed tan, green, and blue colors showing a drawing of arms stretched towards a monitor with a survey.
This study is the first of its kind to look at how characteristics of both humans and pets are linked to issues in the emotional bond between people and their pets. Cropped image: Ståhl et al., 2023, iScience, CC BY 4.0 DEED.

Owners who are more anxious tend to have a more anxious bond with their cats

To understand human-pet relationships, the study surveyed 2,724 Finnish pet owners (92% women) and their 2,545 dogs and 788 cats. This study was unique is that it looked at not only the personalities of owners but also the personalities and behavioral traits of the cats and dogs and how those two affect the type of bond between owner and pet.

When it came to anxious relationships with cats, the study found several key findings which included:

  • Cat owners who were more anxious and conscientious, and those who were less happy overall, tended to have a more anxious relationship with their cats.
  • Owners whose cats were more playful and active were more likely to have an anxious bond with them.
  • Cat owners who had children were less likely to have an anxious relationship with their cats compared to those who didn’t have children.
  • Cat owners whose pets were less friendly and social with people tended to have a more distant or avoidant emotional bond with their cats.
  • Cats that are more sociable and seek to be close and interact with their owners tend to have owners who also seek closeness and interaction in the relationship.
A chart showing with blue and orange dots of different sizes the positive (blue) and negative (orange) association in types of human-pet-relationships.
Chart showing the strength of the type of human-pet association. Chart (cropped): Ståhl et al., 2023, iScience, CC BY 4.0 DEED.

The study did not look at whether the personality traits of humans cause the traits in their pets, or how much they depend on each other. The authors of the study did hypothesize that because study participants were adults, their personalities are probably quite fixed and not greatly influenced by their pets. However, since many pets are acquired when they’re young and more impressionable, their personalities might be shaped by their owners’ emotional state.

Improving the human-cat bond

This study highlights the importance of understanding how both the pets’ and owners’ characteristics contribute to human-pet relationships and what can be done to improve that bond. The authors of the study suggested that understanding that owners who are more anxious or have poorer mental health tend to have a more anxious relationship with their pets can help pet owners be more aware of how they react emotionally. This awareness might lead them to find ways to provide more comfort and stability for their pets.

The study

Ståhl, A., Salonen, M., Hakanen, E., Mikkola, S., Sulkama, S., Lahti, J., & Lohi, H. (2023). Pet and Owner Personality and Mental Wellbeing Associate with Attachment to Cats and Dogs. iScience.

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Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey holds both a master's in Geography from UCLA and a Master of Library and Information Science. She is the editor of and an avid researcher of geography and feline topics. A lifelong cat owner, Caitlin currently has three rescued cats: an orange tabby, a gray tabby, and a black cat.