Anxiety Kitty: The Not-So-Surprising Way Pets Improve Mental Health

Remember that nervous cat I adopted a few months ago who spent all his time hiding under couches and beds or in closets? (click here to read “Lessons From My Nervous Cat”). My plan was to pour as much patience, love, and understanding into his life as I want people to show me when I’m scared. I wanted to show him that he had a safe home now.

Well, it’s working. Flynn is turning into quite the friendly cat, especially with me but also with the rest of the people he sees every day. And he’s even getting better around non-family members. We had several people over for dinner last night for a total of 14 humans around. Flynn hid when they were all in the house together, but after we sat down to dinner (some outside and some in the dining room) he actually wandered around out in the open and let people he didn’t know pet him.

After doing some research, I learned that clicker training is the one thing people have found that helps anxious cats settle down and feel safe. No one knows why teaching a cat to do simple tricks on command combats anxiety, but it does. My theory is that when the cat gets positive reinforcement for certain actions the additional structure helps make them feel secure. Whatever the reason, it’s adorable. It’s mostly about teaching him to do things he was already doing on command (touch my fingers, come when called, jump on and off chairs, and stand on his hind legs). The “stand” command is everyone’s favorite. He’s just so cute!

Anxiety Kitty | marissabaker.wordpress.com

As I’ve helped Flynn with his anxiety, he’s been helping me with mine. Before a lunch date a few weeks ago (the first since my breakup), he spent the whole morning following me around and checking in on me. Every few minutes while I was working at my desk he’d hop out of the window and walk over to “talk” with me and have his head rubbed. And when I walked into a different room he followed. Since then, he’s kept that pattern up most of the days my anxiety has spiked.

I’m honestly shocked how in-tune he is with my emotional state. A few days ago I was working on a guest post sharing my testimony about anxiety (I’ll share a link here when it goes live) and I hit a point in my writings where I just burst into tears sitting at my desk. I went for a walk outside and when I came back Flynn walked around my feet crying until I responded to him. He actually let me pick him up and hold him for a good 30 seconds (he hates being cuddled and usually wiggles as soon as you pick him up). Then a little while later when I was journaling and crying he spotted me, ran into the room, jumped up on the bed with me and stayed there purring until someone else came home. The only other times he sits on my bed with me is late at night, so this was really outside his normal behavior.

We’ve also discovered another shared love: old books. I collect Grosset & Dunlap series books (like Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, Rick Brant, and others). I found two bags full of books I needed for my collection at a book sale on Friday and they’re in really good shape. Flynn acted like the bags were full of catnip. He dove into the Hardy Boys bag head first and rolled around on the books until I pulled him out and tied the bag shut so he wouldn’t damage them. Then he climbed into the bag that I’d had Rick Brant books in earlier. He looked almost as happy with the books as I am.

Anxiety Kitty | marissabaker.wordpress.com

There’s just something comforting about sharing my home with a fluffy critter. Cats are my choice, but I’m sure other pet owners can relate whether they love dogs, rabbits, gerbils, or even non-fluffy pets. People are happier and healthier around animals. In fact, one survey found that 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements from pet ownership.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says, “pets and therapy animals can help alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness and social isolation.” That’s so true for me. Adopting Flynn and starting counseling are the two biggest things that have helped me deal with my anxiety this year, as well as my post-breakup grief. I know pet ownership isn’t for everyone, and would never tell you to get a pet if you’re not sure you could take care of it. But for those of us who can have pets, they can be a huge help when you’re going through something.

You don’t need to have a mental health issue to benefit from caring for an animal. For example, I suggested in my post on developing Sensing as an INFJ or INTJ that pets can help ground these personality types in the real world. INxJ types are normally a bit out-of-touch with the physical world and there’s nothing like knowing some other life form needs you in order to stay alive and happy to get you out of your own head for a while. Whatever your personality type, pets can be a huge blessing.

What about you? Do you have an animal friend who helps you when you’re struggling with something?

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