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Do you believe in purr-power?
Purr-power is the ability of cats (and pets generally) to improve our mental health and well-being. If you’re not a believer, then you should be, because the latest research sheds light on the ability of pets to improve life for those with long-term mental health issues. 
Indeed, the evidence for the beneficial effects of a feline friend (or canine companion) is so strong that experts are beginning to question why pets aren’t ‘on prescription’ and their company isn’t routinely considered as part of the care plan for those with long-term problems.
Why Pets are Good for Your Mental Health
What’s your cat done for you lately?
It may feel like you’re the cat’s housekeeper, but know that even when she’s at her most aloof your cat is beneficial to your physical health. The companionship of a cat is proven to:
- reduce blood pressure
- lower heart rate
- reduce levels of stress hormones in the blood
- reduce blood cholesterol levels
- increase survival times after a heart attack.
But what about our mental health?
Dr Helen Brooks surveyed people with mental health problems about their attitudes to pets. They were asked to assign a ‘level of importance’ from one (of lesser importance) to three (of utmost importance) to the presence of their pet.
The results came back that 60% of patients rated their pet as of utmost importance in their lives, with a further 20% saying pets were ‘important but not crucial’.
What is it about pets that we find so important?
Dr Brooks wanted to find out more about how pets help our mental health. She chatted to those who took part in the study, to share their insights as to why their pets mattered so much. The answers she got included people that said their pet accepted them without judging, gave unflagging support, and a sense of purpose to their life.
It’s funny, isn’t it, that something we know instinctively – that pets are good for us – is the focus of scientific research. (Who knows, perhaps one day we’ll be able to get chocolate on prescription!) In truth, the science behind the animal-human bond is in its infancy, but let’s take a quick recap about what we know so far. . . who knows, it might be the purr-fect argument for you to get that kitten you’ve been hankering after.
7 Rational Reasons Pets are Good for Your Mental Wellbeing
1. Reduce anxiety
Stroking a cat is soothing and reduces the levels of anxiety hormones in our bloodstream. But more than that, looking at a beloved pet stimulates the release of the love-hormone, oxytocin. This is the same hormone a mother releases when looking at her baby, which promotes bonding and nurtures protective feelings.
Release of oxytocin produces physiological change in the body, which results in lowered feelings of anxiety and other crippling emotions, thus enabling people to function more normally.
2. Encourage Mindfulness
Cats don’t like us dashing around and are more likely to settle on our lap when we are at peace. Cats encourage us to relax and live ‘in the moment’, enjoying the feel of their fur against our fingertips as we stroke them.
Mindfulness is in vogue at the moment, as shown by the rise in popularity of ‘mindfulness colouring’ and other pursuits. But stroking a cat, relaxing back to feel the vibration of that purr, remains one of the original and best ways of exercising mindfulness.
3. Reduce Loneliness
A pet such as a cat provides companionship for those who work from home, are house bound, or have a limited social circle. Meeting their needs, such as feeding, grooming, and keeping a clean tray provide a structure to the day and give the carer a sense of worth, a reason to get up in the morning and perhaps even take care of themselves for the sake of the pet.
The cat also provides a topic for conversation and a mutual interest with other pet lovers, which in turn helps to connect people and reduce feelings of social isolation.
4. Diversion Therapy
Depression and other mental illness have a horrible habit of becoming all consuming. When the mind is filled with black thoughts, these seem to squeeze out any moments of brightness, and the sufferer becomes caught in a downward spiral of negative thinking.
For those struggling with mental health issues, caring for a pet and returning their affection is a welcome distraction from the dark gloom of depression. The presence of another living being that is dependent on them, helps to divert attention from their inner turmoil. Even small things such as the cat returning affection with a purr, can throw a lifeline to a mentally distressed person.
5. Smile Therapy
In the grips of depression there may seem very little to smile about. However, dangle a wing-on-a-string in front of a cat and it’s very difficult to keep a straight face. Simple things like playing with a pet promote feeling of calmness and happiness through the release of beneficial neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Again, when you enlist Mother Nature and get her armoury of feel-good hormones on your side, this helps lighten the gloom.
6. Unconditional Love
When you can’t think straight and the world seems distorted, the one thing people can rely on is their pet. Be it a cat, dog, rabbit, or bird, our pets don’t judge and love us regardless of our appearance, wealth (or lack of it), or social status. For those people who feel adrift from society, a pet can be a valuable anchor and a reminder of uplifting emotions such as love.
7. Mental Attitude
Pet are great listeners and don’t reveal secrets. A pet won’t betray a confidence and is a great conduit through which to tell our innermost fears or feelings of inadequacy. In return, small acts such as opening a can of food or stroking their coat are returned with appreciation which helps to build confidence and maybe even a sense of pride.
So whilst no-one is seriously talking about putting ‘pets on prescription’ there is little doubt they can significantly contribute to the mental well-being of people.
Do you have personal experience of pets as therapy or know of someone whose illness has been turned around by the presence of a fur-friend? Please share your comments below.
 Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: A study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition. Dr Helen Brooks et al. BMC Psychiatry.