Oh, cats, how the internet loves you.
The rest of the world does too, though we sure do have an odd way of showing it. Cats are the most popular pet in the Western world, but they’re often forgotten and abandoned by humans who view them as disposable pets. As a result, we don’t hold cats to the same esteem that we do dogs, especially when it comes to their ability to help people with mental disabilities.
I grew up in a farming town, the sort of community where cats were mostly outside-only and used to hunt small rodents and spiders. They weren’t pets in the same way that dogs were; taking a cat to the vet was considered a luxury, whereas taking a dog to the vet was viewed as caring for a family member. So you can imagine my surprise when I adopted one from a friend’s litter last summer and promptly fell head-over-heels in love.
Minerva came into my life at a time when I really needed someone to get me outside of my own head, and since I struggle to allow that kind of vulnerability between myself and other people, I took solace in her sassy little soul and found a best friend who is the opposite of disposable in just about every way. Though it’s admittedly not a very high bar, she was undoubtedly the best thing that happened to me in 2016.
Since getting Minerva, I’ve become a lot more proactive about my mental health. She helped me realize that therapy and medication weren’t the only resources in my life that could help me work through issues and manage chronic symptoms. Because of that, I’ve made up a list of five feline qualities that are especially helpful for anyone struggling with their mental health. I'm also totally using this as an excuse to get paid to put a bunch of pictures of my beautiful cat on the internet. I'd apologize, but it's actually more of a "you're welcome" sort of situation, so, you're welcome:
1. Cats are animals, plain and simple.
I know I’m focusing mostly on cats here, but part of what makes them so great is that they are animals in the first place. Nature and wildlife can have amazing effects on your mental health, but pets are their own special kind of support. We’ve all experienced the benefits of pet therapy at some point in our lives, be it through formal interactions with trained animals or finding comfort in our own furry/scaly/feathered friends. We may have domesticated cats and dogs for help with food and protection all those thousands of years ago, but we also totally leaned into what great companions they are.
The health benefits of having a pet are well documented and of special import to folks with mental illness. Caring for a pet can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and make us feel less lonely! Humans are technically animals too, I guess, but we don’t think of ourselves that way a lot of the time and it is also not cool to keep people as pets. Cats, however, are partially domesticated bundles of sweet fluff and jellybean-shaped toes — and they make for FANTASTIC pets.
2. Cats don't care about what people think of them.
I love dogs so much that if I tried to explain my love for them I would derail this whole article, but those guys are obsessed with making us happy. That’s part of why we love them so much. But when I was looking for a pet to help me make some strides in my mental health, I often worried that I would somehow disappoint a dog because I wouldn’t make for a very energetic companion. I also live in a tiny, kitchen-less studio apartment that just doesn’t have enough space to keep a dog happy. A cat seemed like a much better fit, and it was!
Minerva is happy to laze about on the days I struggle to get out of bed, but she’s also happy to ignore me on days that she’d rather spend lazing about. Her life is her own. I have to show her that I love her, and it’s up to her to decide how that affection is reciprocated. She doesn’t give a shit about my opinion of her, and she helps me to understand that being treated with respect is a lot more important than making other people happy. This sort of thing is often cited as a deficiency in cats, but I think it’s actually one of their most under appreciated qualities.
3. Cats need stuff.
Cats generally aren’t as emotionally dependent as dogs, but they still need to eat and drink and use a litter box. They also need regular social interaction and — whether they’ll admit it to you or not — affection and love! My cat may hang out with me when I stay in bed all day, but she also forces me to get out of said bed because I’m responsible for her health and wellbeing.
She reminds me that I need to care for myself, too. I’ll be filling her bowl up with food and suddenly remember that I have eaten a total of 3 baby carrots and a taco in the past 12 hours. It happens more often than I’d like to admit. Also, sometimes I take naps because I see her taking one, and I’ve never met a nap that didn’t feel absolutely necessary at the time.
Not only is purring the most relaxing sound ever, it can actually help heal your body! Cats purr for lots of different reasons, though we know it best as a sound of contentment. They also purr when stressed or hurt, and the frequency of their purring promotes bone growth! Cat owners are 40% less likely to have a heart attack than their sans-feline counterparts. Sitting with a purring cat is basically like getting a massage, dipping your feet into the ocean, and listening to David Attenborough narrate a baby monkey’s first steps all at once.
5. Cats know how to set boundaries — and assert them.
This gets back to cats and their total disinterest in whether or not you like them. Cats will tell you exactly what they need, when they need it. They’ll also tell you what the don’t need. If Minerva doesn’t want to cuddle, she’ll just leave. If she feels unsafe or upset, she communicates that and then separates from the situation until she feels better.
One of my biggest struggles is vocalizing my needs, so much so that I often struggle to find the words, let alone communicate them to others. Having a cat has taught me a lot about boundaries and the importance of setting them. Consent is non-negotiable for Minerva in just about every facet of her life, and she makes me want to build that sort of life for myself.