1. Psychological support
The support provided by a cat during bereavement, illness, redundancy and rejection can be as important as the support provided by a partner, friend or relative. Often a pet is a repository for feelings that cannot be expressed in human relationships.
Dr June McNicholas, a psychologist with a particular interest in animals and human health, has worked with women with breast cancer. 'They told me they could put on a stiff upper lip with the family but used the pet as an emotional release,' she says. 'One woman said, "When I have words for what I feel, I talk to my daughter. When I don't, I cry with my cat”.’
'Those who'd had a mastectomy really wanted a hug but found it difficult because their body image had changed. A cat doesn't care and will love you anyway and that's where the emotional release is. The most valuable thing about getting over any serious illness is a supportive relationship. The psychological support keeps you on track but it doesn't matter if that relationship is with a person or a pet .’
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An owner's relationship with a cat can go very deep. It can mean so much that they might move house, change jobs, forgo holidays and even dump a partner to ensure that the emotional relationship with their cat remains happy and stable.
Dr June McNicholas says her studies have shown that people looking for a partner will actively reject somebody who doesn't like their cat. 'I found 90% of people put the family pet in their top 10 relationships. This figure is even higher with children under seven and those over 60.
'As humans we need to feel important to someone or something and the feeling that one is appreciated is hugely beneficial. But some people don't have anybody to make them feel valued, particularly older people, and this is where a pet is of particular importance. Even if a cat wakes you at 4am, they're saying they want to be with you or need you to let them out.'
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3. Health benefits
Incorporating your pet into your fitness routine is a fun and easy way to make sure you’re both getting the exercise you need. When you exercise with your pet, it helps to deepen your unique connection, providing physical and psychological benefits that help both of you live happier, healthier lives.
Dr Sandra McCune, research manager for WALTHAM® Centre for Pet Nutrition (in collaboration with the University of Maryland), found the presence of cats during their owners’ daily lives brought significant cardiovascular benefits, lowering blood pressure.
Studies carried out in China - where people have only relatively recently been allowed to own pets and where children have few, if any, younger siblings - show significant health and emotional benefits from pet ownership. Children had more empathy and middle-aged women had less time off sick and better quality of sleep.
4. Benefits for children
Growing up with a cat can help teach responsibility for another living being, and help children appreciate that we must care for animals in our lives.
'I used to take a dog and a cat into school, because so many children grow up without,' says Dr McNicholas. 'I'd say, I want you to turn to the child next to you and pinch them on the hand. They'd all say, "Miss, he hurt me" and I’d point out that animals can't say that. Children need something concrete to learn that an animal can feel pain. Then I'd send the animals round.'
Research also shows that children’s immune systems benefit when born into cat and/or dog owning families. 'Several medical studies, including my own, have shown that children raised in cat/dog owning families develop far fewer allergies in childhood and later life,' says Dr McNicholas.
5. Therapy animals
Children with autism, older people with dementia and other vulnerable groups relate to their cats in ways they cannot relate to humans.
'Not all autistic children can relate to animals - some can't relate to anything and they will treat an animal as inanimate,' says Dr McNicholas. ’Animals are very straightforward: they either like you or don't, and their signals are much easier to read than humans. One little boy with autism never showed any concern about his mother when she was in hospital but when she came out he told her, "I love you 1,000 cats". It was his currency for expressing affection.
'Some dementia and Alzheimers’ sufferers relate to animals in a way they don't to people. The routine of looking after animals can be coupled with the routine of self care, which can help people live in their own homes for longer and maintain independence.'
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