This is my cat. She currently lives with my sister back in Canada, while I live 3000 miles away in London. I've often wondered if my cat misses me and whether or not she will be happy to see me when I come visit. Apparently, the answer is no.
Researchers have long known about parent-child attachment, which relates to safety and security between a vulnerable individual and a carer. Attachment tests have been adapted to study relationships between other species (like chimps and dogs) and their carers. Since, as many cat-owners will tell you, cats are as much a member of the family as any child or dog, researchers at the University of Lincoln (Lincolnshire UK) sought to study attachment styles between cats and their owners.
Previous research using a modification of the Ainsworth attachment test found that cats do form secure attachments to their owners, reflected in the fact that the cats would only play in an unfamiliar environment in the presence of their owners, vocalized more when left alone, and were more alert in the presence of a stranger.
However, the authors of a study in PLOS One argue that the methodology of this previous work was flawed, and decided to re-examine cat attachment. The study again used a modified Ainsworth SST test, which involves placing the subject (in this case the cat) in an unfamiliar room together with the carer (potential attachment figure) and a stranger (to whom there is no attachment), followed by a series of episodes of separations from and reunions with their carer and the stranger. A normal healthy response for this test would be a differentiation between the carer and stranger in the support they provide in an unfamiliar situation.
The authors put 20 cats and their owners in rooms that looked like this. The characteristics of attachment were observed: proximity/contact seeking, secure-base effect (exploring, social play), and distress.
Ultimately, the cats didn't exhibit any differences in play or exploring behaviours in the presence of their owners or strangers. But they did spend more time expressing passive behaviours in the presence of the stranger alone than they did with their owners, and they also vocalized more when their owners left the room. This vocalization and any other signs of potential stress when the owner leaves the room seems to be more consistent with a preference for interacting with the owner rather than the stranger, but is not a display of secure attachment.
The authors state that the evidence from this study is not consistent with the requirements for secure attachment between cats and their owners. That doesn't necessarily mean that your cat doesn't love you; the authors conclude by saying that perhaps, since cats are more autonomous than children and dogs, we need to develop different methods for studying cat psychology.
I would be really interested to find out if part of differences between cats and dogs relating to their attachment styles and separation behaviours are caused by artificial selection during domestication.