Each year, more than 44,000 Americans die by suicide, which averages to about 121 people per day. Despite being the 10th largest cause of death in the United States, suicide is rarely talked about.
Because suicidal thoughts and fantasies occur in people who feel isolated and alone, inviting pet therapy into the discourse is one way mental health advocates are working to reduce the rate.
While no one person, pet, or even organization can prevent suicide alone, taking comfort in the presence of a pet can greatly improve the well-being of someone struggling with suicidal depression. Caring for an animal has also been shown to improve self-esteem, physical health, and socialization for both the person and their furry friend.
Playing with a pet can increase serotonin and dopamine levels, two chemicals key in regulating mood disorders such as depression. But while many animals have documented mental health benefits, it’s dogs that seem to get all the attention. A quick Google search for emotional support dogs yields nearly 5 million results, while emotional support cats get only 2.4 million hits.
The popularity of dogs in the role of therapy and emotional support may have something to do with the fact that cats are commonly viewed as anti-social, aloof, or independent. But not only is this partly rooted in widespread misconception, the fact that cats are more independent and individual than dogs is actually the very reason they make for such valuable therapy animals.
“We actually find dogs kind of limiting. The fact that dogs are so accepting and non-judgemental is really good and helpful in the beginning of therapy,” says Linda Chassman, co-founder and executive director of Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado. “But it’s not very realistic when you’re trying to help a client who has social skills issues or who has anxiety, problems in the family, communication issues, [or] boundary issues. The dog just kind of puts up with bad behavior, whereas the cat won’t.”
While working with severely traumatized children, Chassman’s cat Norman got involved in the process. Through learning what behaviors Norman wouldn’t tolerate — such as rough housing or yelling — the children began to understand how to interact in a healthy relationship. Like humans, cats won’t tolerate all behavior, making them useful mirrors to human interaction.
“They have enough interest in people, but can also assert themselves. And they have quiet dignity,” Chassman says. “They won’t let people walk on them. … I just think they’re wonderful role models for good relationships.”
Cats aren’t just helpful for mirroring couple and family dynamics; they are also critical in helping people who struggle with mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety learn about emotional regulation.
“The emotional regulation is something we deal with a lot because we get a lot of kids and adults who don’t have the ability to calm themselves down,” Chassman says. “Being able to rhythmically pet the cat and just kind of focus on stroking the cat’s back, or seeing how the cat responds, can be really helpful.”
Though most animals respond favorably to being pet, having clients strive to get a cat to purr can make all the difference. Unique to cats, not only does purring provide a tangible goal for emotional regulation, it has its own health benefits as well.
Scientists discovered that the purring frequency of cats is a hertz rate that is equal to what they call the gamma waves, which are the meditation waves. So the purring of your cat actually helps to incite additional gamma rays for you. It helps to slow down your breathing. It also helps with anxiety and high blood pressure. It has a meditative quality, which has extremely positive health ramifications.
Other studies, too, have illuminated the benefits of having a cat by your side. A study by the Cats Protection agency in the UK surveyed 600 participants, half of whom struggled with their mental health. They discovered that 87% of cat owners found their cats to have a positive effect on their well-being.
In addition, 76% reported cats made regular stressors easier to manage. Cornwell College student Filipa Denis studied the benefit of human attachment with cats, and found that humans who were attached to their cats experienced great calming effects from the relationship.
Cats also fulfill the human need for touch, especially for those whose mental illness prevents them from easily forming attachments with other people. Contrary to popular belief, cats can be affectionate and attached to their humans as well.
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