By Jenni Davies
Cat lovers know that there’s nothing as relaxing as having a feline friend by your side, softly purring away. But did you know that it’s actually good for your health too?
What’s up, pussycat?
Those who don’t like cats may say that they only stay with us because they get something in return – food and shelter. Cat lovers disagree: these little furballs are pretty fierce and independent animals, perfectly capable of surviving on their own. We know that they don’t really need us; they stay because they want to.
And that’s a pretty big boost: knowing that they can leave any time they want to, so, clearly, they stay because they like us!
I heart cats
According to the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology, people living with cats lower their cardiovascular disease risk. They concluded that, “A decreased risk for death due to [heart attack] and all cardiovascular diseases (including stroke) was observed among persons with cats.” They went on to suggest that keeping cats as pets could help to, “… [reduce] the risk of cardiovascular diseases in high-risk individuals.”
This is thought to be because having a furry companion reduces stress levels, which, in turn, combats high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and depression – all risk factors in developing cardiovascular disease.
Physical touch with humans or animals triggers oxytocin production, also called the “love hormone”. This hormone is responsible for the feeling of happiness when in love or after having a baby. The effect is magnified with pets because of their unconditional acceptance and because we focus on them, rather than our own worries. We can just relax and enjoy the company. When your cat purrs, it makes you feel that something you’re doing is making another living being happy.
Although cats have a reputation for being unfriendly, this is generally far from the truth. But it does make us feel even better when a supposedly unfriendly animal wants to be with us – it’s a boost to the ego.
What’s more, having a relaxed animal with you instinctively boosts feelings of safety and security – if danger was around, your cat wouldn’t be snoozing. This has a knock-on effect to more emotional stress, helping to make you feel calmer overall.
Kids and cats
Children seem naturally attracted to cats and they often get along wonderfully well. But did you know that children raised in a home with pet cats and/or dogs are healthier and have a lower chance of allergy?
In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers explained that children exposed to two or more dogs or cats before one year of age have a significantly reduced risk of developing allergies (not just to pets, but dust mites, pollen, and others) compared with children raised without pets. The American National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) have suggested a protective effect of pet exposure on allergy and asthma symptoms. Further studies found a link between being raised with pets and having less ear infections and respiratory problems.
Pets, including cats, help your child’s social development. They encourage socialising, provide unconditional love, and can encourage them to exercise more. Children with reading difficulties respond well when they have a pet to read to, and those who are shy or have trouble fitting in feel better with the unconditional love of a pet.
The key, of course, is to have a cat that is relaxed and likes children – and to work with your child. By explaining how the cat may feel (e.g. if they’re rough with the cat you’d ask them to explain: “how would you feel if someone did that to you?”), you teach compassion and empathy. By making children responsible for at least some of the cat’s care, for example dishing up kibbles or brushing them (with your supervision, of course), they learn responsibility.
Always supervise small children with cats to ensure that your child doesn’t inadvertently hurt the cat (children don’t always realise their own strength). Even the friendliest cat won’t take kindly to having its tail yanked or fur pulled, and may retaliate by biting or scratching. Aside from being cruel to the cat, your child could end up fearing or disliking cats in the future.
Baby smothering – it’s a myth!
Cats are attracted to the warmth and the noises a baby makes, and will never intentionally smother a baby. They also do not “steal the baby’s breath” – this is absolute nonsense. Supervise them (as with any other pet) to avoid accidents, and train your cat to stay at the foot of the bed.
But what about allergies?
Many people who have cats are mildly allergic to them but their love of these adorable animals overrides the occasional sneeze. The good news is that, unless your allergy is dangerously severe, you can build up a tolerance to cat allergies.
Clear your home of as many allergens as possible (dust, mould, dust mites); look at places where these things lurk, particularly curtains and carpets. Boost your immune system to help it deal with allergens – vitamin C and bioflavonoids help by strengthening capillaries and reducing histamine levels. There are also herbal and homeopathic remedies that can help, available at health shops.
The next step is the fun one: spending time with cats. Visit someone who has a cat for short periods at a time, gradually increasing them. Eventually, you can spend more time with more cats, and eventually (hopefully) visit a shelter cattery to choose your kitty.
Cats on camera
If you’re not lucky enough to have a cat in your life, take to the internet! A study of 7000 people found that, “…watching cat videos at work or when…studying, typically felt more energetic and more positive after watching the videos. They also had fewer negative emotions, including sadness and anxiety.”
The bottom line is that cats aren’t just cute internet memes – they’re actually good for our physical and emotional health. They’re small, fit into most homes, are quite low maintenance, and they delight us with their beauty. They make us laugh with their antics, relax us when we’re stressed, and reward us for our companionship with love.
Right now, all over South Africa, thousands of cats are in shelters waiting to be adopted. If you can’t adopt one, you can still visit them to give them the love that they’re so ready to give and get your kitty cat cuddles. So, what are you waiting for?