How My Pets Helped My Mental Health
| 4 min read
I know it may sound cliché – but my cat picked me, not the other way around.
About 11 years ago, after moving out on my own for the first time, I went with a friend to a local animal shelter. At the time, I wasn’t planning to adopt a pet – but, shortly after going into the cat room at the shelter, I knew I had met my soulmate, or “soul-cat,” that day.
There were 10 to 15 cats roaming around the room, and, when I sat down in the middle of the floor, a calico immediately approached me and sat down in my lap. She was instantly protective of me – swatting away any other cat who came near me. The staff and volunteers at the shelter kept coming into the room, in awe. “She’s never done this before!” they would say. “She doesn’t like people!”
They told me her story – that someone had thrown her out of their car in the shelter’s parking lot. Before anyone could come outside to get her, she had run into the woods behind the shelter. It took a week before anyone could find her, and, when they did bring her inside, she was noticeably shaken from the experience. They told me that she had been at the shelter for a year – longer than any of the other cats – because others thought she was aggressive and anti-social.
But, for some reason, she wasn’t like that with me. And I knew right then that I needed to take her home with me.
I named her Katniss – after the main character in the “Hunger Games” series – and when I took her to the vet, they diagnosed her with “kitty anxiety” (who knew this was a thing!) And considering I have “human anxiety,” I couldn’t help but wonder – could she tell? Did she know that I needed her as much as she needed me?
I lived alone in a small, one bedroom apartment at the time – but whenever Katniss would crawl up into my lap while I was watching TV or cuddle next to me while I was sleeping, I no longer felt alone. I didn’t grow up with any pets, so I never knew what it was like to care for a living thing. But Katniss – along with her later adopted brother Finnick – have helped my mental health more than I ever thought possible.
Studies have proven that pets can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, boost your mood, and decrease levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, according to the National Institute of Health. Cats and dogs also give you a sense of routine and responsibility, which can help with depression and anxiety. I know my cats need me to feed them, clean their litter boxes, play with them and keep them company – and that reminds me, even on my worst days, that I do have a purpose.
A few years ago, I read an opinion piece in “Vanity Fair” that really stuck with me. Nic Sheff, whose life was chronicled in the movie “Beautiful Boy,” talked about attempting suicide. He said he went into his bathroom, emptied all of his pill bottles, and started chasing the medicine with whiskey – but stopped just long enough to remember his dog in the other room.
“There was scratching at the bathroom door. I opened it and saw the stray hound dog I’d recently found under a truck on the outskirts of town. She’d been close to death herself when I took her in. She cried and whined now, looking up at me. It was like she could sense she’d almost lost me. And I held on to her and cried,” he wrote.
He said, if he wouldn’t have stopped, “I would’ve missed out on all the amazing gifts I have in my life today. Because that’s the cool thing about life: if you don’t give up, if you keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, you never know what’s going to happen next.”
My cats have done the same for me. They have been there when I went through the worst depression of my life. They sat by my side during almost every panic attack and rubbed their little faces against mine when I’ve cried. They depend on me, and I depend on them. They remind me every day, even when my anxiety is telling me the lie, “You don’t deserve to be loved,” that they love me anyways, no matter what.
Visit https://www.petfinder.com to find a pet available for adoption near you. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.
Opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan or its subsidiaries and affiliates.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Monica Drake