Having suffered with depression for many years, Sarah Graham explores the benefits of cat ownership on mental health.
We all know our cats have a special knack for bringing a smile to our faces, whether it’s through furry kisses and cuddles or entertaining toy-based antics.
It’s no surprise then that study after study has shown that cats actually have noticeable benefits for people with mental health problems, reducing levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
A survey (conducted back in 2011) by the Mental Health Foundation and Cats Protection found that 87 per cent of cat owners feel their pets have a positive impact on their well-being and 76 per cent find coping with everyday life easier thanks to their kitties.
I adopted my feline therapists during one of my worst periods of depression in recent years. I was nine months away from getting married, had just bought a flat with my fiancé, had a great group of friends around me and a job that I loved — but there’s no rhyme or reason to depression, so my mood and self esteem were at an all-time low and I was struggling to drag myself out of bed in the morning, let alone plan a wedding or function at work.
Like many people with depression, I’d been prescribed Prozac by my GP and put on a waiting list for talking therapy, but the best treatment of all came from the two 12-week-old kittens we brought home from the Celia Hammond Animal Trust in Canning Town.
Having grown up with a family cat, who was always there for me to cry on during my years of teenage angst, I’d been desperate to get a cat of my own to provide that same love, support and companionship. Within weeks, our shy little boy Tybalt and his cheeky, self-assured sister Scala had made a marked difference to my mental health and helped me begin to establish coping strategies.
A source of comfort
Some of the reasons why cats are great for our mental health are obvious; cats provide comfort and friendship, and a confidential, non-judgemental listening ear. Far from the ‘self-interested and aloof’ stereotype that’s perpetuated by dog people, cats can often seem to have a sixth sense for when you’re most in need of their company and affection, and they provide it in spades.
Dr Eva Chylarova, an ex-vet and head of research at the Mental Health Foundation responded to the charity’s joint study with Cats Protection, saying: “Looking after a pet can bring structure to your day, reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, and act as a link to other people.”
Another study at Miami University in Ohio found that ‘pet owners had greater self esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful, and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.’
And, as cat lovers know, pets of the feline variety are particularly good for boosting our mental well-being. One study, conducted in Switzerland in 2003, even suggested that having a cat is the emotional equivalent of having a romantic partner — but I haven’t told my husband that! In fact, much like my husband, Tybalt and Scala are an amazing source of comfort and companionship on my lowest days — whether they’re sitting with me in bed, perched on the edge of my desk watching me work, making me laugh with their play fighting and silly antics, or just pestering me to attend to their whims.
Depression can often feel like living beneath a dark cloud of self-loathing and despair that just won’t shift no matter what you try, but Scala and Tybalt’s unconditional love and acceptance has been a powerful force in breaking through that cloud and learning to love and accept myself.
Perhaps most significantly though, the responsibility and routine of caring for my cats has consistently forced me out of bed, even on the days when getting out of bed seemed most pointless. Anyone who’s ever tried to stay in bed while there’s a hungry cat in the house knows that a hungry cat waits for no one, and that pitiful miaow will eventually drown out even the all-encompassing voice of depression.
Beyond simply keeping you company, part of the power of the aptly nicknamed ‘purr therapy’ may in fact lie in the meditative quality of your cat’s purring. Commenting on its benefits in 2012, Cats Protection’s clinical veterinary officer Beth Skillings says: “Sitting with a relaxed, purring cat at the end of a hectic day is a soothing massage for the soul” — cheesy, perhaps, but who can’t relate?
She adds: “Perhaps this is because the reassuring hum is generally associated with calmness and gentle communication, or perhaps it is because the frequency of the vibration is in the range that can stimulate healing.”
Likewise, simply stroking your cat can reduce stress and anxiety — which not only makes you more mentally healthy, but may also reduce your chances of anxiety-related illnesses like a stroke or heart disease. The soothing, tactile movement of hand over fur focuses your mind and provides a feeling of calm and safety.
It may not sound particularly significant, but this reduction in anxiety can make the world of difference to your ability to make mentally healthy decisions. My standard response to stress is typically to hide myself away under the covers, rather than leave the house for that diffi cult meeting or send that email pitching for work I really want. It’s amazing how many times a quiet cuddle with one or both of my cats has been known to bring me down from a state of anxiety-ridden avoidance to a much calmer, more optimistic mind set.
The science of cats
There’s even science to back it up: physical contact with your cat triggers the production of the ‘bonding hormone’ oxytocin, which in turn reduces the stress hormone cortisol, making you feel happy and relaxed. As well as oxytocin, playing with your cat may increase the production of dopamine and mood-boosting serotonin, which antidepressants like Prozac work to regulate.
That’s not to say that cats can take the place of prescribed medication, but it’s certainly no surprise that cats can compliment traditional therapies. Feline therapists have even successfully been used in animal-assisted therapies with hospitalised psychiatric patients displaying high levels of depression and anxiety.
Indeed, ‘purr therapy’, in my experience, can interact perfectly with more traditional treatments; what better way to reinforce the positive thinking of counselling or therapy than the mood-boosting effects and silent, non-judgemental sympathy of a cat?
I struggled to get out of bed for my first therapy session, and then cried all the way through it. Ten sessions later, and I’ve come a really long way. Though I’m still on medication, these days often all it takes to get me going in the morning is a cup of tea and a cuddle with one of my kitties — or 10 minutes giggling as they wobble their way across the clothes rack, which they regularly repurpose as a climbing frame.
One of the respondents in the Cats Protection and Mental Health Foundation survey says: “As I said to [my doctor], he should have prescribed me a cat instead of Prozac!” For me, it’s really important not to understate the benefits that both medication and traditional talking therapies can and do have; but for many people living with depression, cats may just be the missing piece of that therapeutic puzzle.
This article was featured in the December 2014 issue of Your Cat Magazine. Sarah is an award-winning freelance journalist, and founder of #HystericalWomen blog, covering mental health, women’s health, and feminism. You can see all the latest updates from Tybalt, Scala, and their Border Terrier brother, Elfin on Instagram @gcmunchbunch.