A Viewpoint: Pets and Mental Health
On Friday 30th March 2018, I took my husband to see a kitten. This in itself isn’t all that unusual, until you consider that my husband hated cats. I mean HATED cats. Didn’t like acknowledging their presence on this Earth kinda thing.
But I’m the exact opposite, and insistent. I grew up with a cat I loved to bits, and to me the idea of spending the rest of my life without one was genuinely distressing. I’ve always found the presence of a pet to be cathartic. They’re non-judgmental, don’t care what you’re doing in the rest of your life, and react to you solely based on how you treat them. It’s my opinion, from experience, that as long as you’re willing to provide food, playtime and regular snuggles, they’re happy to believe you’re the best thing ever.
This is the reason I was insistent when faced with the husband’s loud and frequent objections. He’d never had a pet before, so was entirely oblivious to the benefits. I’m pretty sure he believed cats especially to be aloof fluffy balls of murder, with eyes like snakes and a complete disregard for anything that walks on two legs.
While for some people the jury is still out, it is at least suggested that owning a pet can be beneficial for your mental health - not least those suffering from depression and anxiety (two of the main symptoms I have with fibromyalgia). A study carried out by the Mental Health Foundation in conjunction with Cats Protection in 2011 “found that 87% of people who owned a cat felt it had a positive impact on their wellbeing, while 76% said they could cope with everyday life much better thanks to the company of their feline friends”.
mental health benefits of owning a pet
they’re a life-long commitment
Pets give responsibility; a purpose. This can be super beneficial for those of us with mental health issues, and to teach children what it’s like to have a responsibility. For depression, it gives you a task to focus on - when you’re being meowed at for food or reminded that it’s playtime, it’s harder to think about your own problems!
2. they’re tiny mood enhancers
For your pet, you are their world. Cater to their basic requirements (namely: food, water and love, not necessarily in that order) and they’ll pay it all back (in my experience never in water, sometimes in ‘food’ presents, but mostly in cuddles and nose licks). They help you to feel loved and needed. For those with mental health issues, this is extremely beneficial.
3. calming your anxiety
If you’ve ever sat next to an animal, you’ll most likely have noticed the calming effect stroking and playing with them can have. Not only is a task to focus on, but it feels nice! If you’ve got a cat, you can even listen to them purring through it. This can really help soothe anxiety - not only does it require you to sit still and calm your body to do it, it’s a chance to calm your mind too.
4. a chance to de-stress
If you’ve had a bad day, do you find talking to someone can often help put it all in perspective? Well even if there’s no one home, or it’s something you don’t want to share with another human, your pet will provide an outlet if you’re needing to talk. No judgement here! Just a snuggly acceptance and the chance to get it all off your chest.
5. the furry personal trainer
If you get a dog, they help promote exercise, with all its many physical and mental health benefits - you have to walk them, after all! Studies have long linked exercise and a better quality of life for those with mental health problems. Even when you’re feeling a tad on the lazy side, or you wouldn’t otherwise leave the house that day - they’ll be dragging you out of that door!
6. they promote social networking
Meeting other dog owners whilst doing this gives it a social aspect. Given the daily need to walk a dog, it’s highly likely you’ll see the same people day in, day out. It’s only natural to stop and chat while you’re both throwing a stick around!
7. a constant companion
For the elderly or those who are sick a lot, a pet can make all the difference to being stuck at home. They might not be able to chat back to your conversation in the same language, but they do a pretty good job of making sure that you’re not alone.
For me, this is exactly what I needed. At the time, I was having a lot of sick leave. My husband is a doctor - he works shifts, often at very unsociable hours. Having had the companionship a cat provides once in my life, I was determined to persuade him it was something he needed to try, even if he’s not the one with the chronic illness!
This is how he ended up, post-nights, standing in a stranger’s living room while I cooed over the 10-month old kitten they could no longer keep. She was a tortoiseshell, tiny and absolutely terrified. So, before he could wake up enough to object, I’d passed over the cash, enticed the cat into the carrier I’d been offered, and carried her out to the car. Success!
Since then, he has gotten up at 6 am to let her outside, gone out in the pouring rain to rescue her from a bush when she was soaked through and willingly given up his bed space so she can feel safe sleeping in his knees. This is a two-way relationship, however. She waits on the windowsill at 2 am for him to come home, washes his feet again when he gets out of the shower (just in case he’s missed a bit) and happily provides snuggles and nose bumps when he’s had a bad day. She might be the perfect tonic for me when I’m having a flare up, and nap with me when I’m too exhausted to get out of bed, but I’m definitely not the only one feeling the benefit.
After we’d had her for a while, I asked him if owning a cat was anything like he expected. His simple answer was “no”.