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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Lessons From My Nervous Cat

Meet Flynn. He’s 2 years old, weighs 15 pounds, and lost his previous home (not sure of the exact circumstances). I brought him home from a local humane society a couple weeks ago. I’d asked them if they had a sweet, cuddly cat that would do well in a single-cat home. They recommended Dorito (I’d originally planned to keep his name, but he doesn’t respond to it at all and it just didn’t “feel right” to me. Hence the name change, after Flynn Carsen from The Librarians).

Lessons From My Nervous Cat | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Flynn Carsen and Flynn the Cat

My new kitty cried for the entire car ride home. Once I released him from the cat carrier he promptly hid under the couch for the next six hours. Poor little thing’s been through a lot. But we’re starting to settle in and get used to each other. And after two weeks together I’ve learned that

  • He loves meat and will beg in the kitchen for beef, poultry, and fish
  • Catnip mice are his favorite thing. He just lays on the floor while hugging and chewing on them
  • My fleece mermaid blanket must have a texture he likes, since he danced around with a look of wonder on his face the first time he touched it. It’s our favorite blanket
  • His purr is furniture-rattling in volume and intensity
  • He likes sleeping with people. Usually he picks my bed and spends the night curled up near my feet or legs

But I’ve also learned some other things:

  • He’s terrified of people in motion. If you stand up or walk into a room his eyes get big and he runs away
  • If you reach out toward him he flinches, like he expects you to hit him. But he’s sweet and affectionate if you’re sitting down and he comes up to you
  • He doesn’t like being picked up
  • The slightest noise is enough to make him startle awake, leap in the air, and/or flee the room
  • He spends most of the day hiding, only coming out to spend time with us in the morning and evenings
Lessons From My Nervous Cat | marissabaker.wordpress.com
hiding under the bed

I don’t know what happened in Flynn’s past as Dorito. Being a storyteller, I have a completely theoretical narrative that goes like this: Dorito’s owner was a sweet, elderly person who was confined to a wheelchair. They fed Dorito in the kitchen, invited him to sleep in the bed, and showered him with love. But this person had a caretaker that came in during the days and wasn’t kind to the cat. So Dorito learned that people walking toward him meant he’d be kicked or grabbed or chased out of the room. And then when their elderly person passed away, Dorito was dumped off at the Humane Society.

Of course I have no idea if that’s anywhere near the truth. What I do know is that I’ve adopted a very nervous cat. He startles at the slightest noise. He flinches if you touch him. He doesn’t do “normal cat” things like lay around all day and nap (at least not out in the open). And he’s taking a very long time to relax around us, especially my 6′ 3″ younger brother.

After a few days of this, someone in my family described Flynn as a “useless cat” because he won’t cuddle. And then someone asked if I could return a defective cat. I was behind the couch at this point trying to convince Flynn to come out and raised my voice just enough to say, “He’s scared and he needs our love and understanding!” After that the (mostly) joking suggestions that Flynn wasn’t the cat we were looking for stopped. He also started becoming more friendly, which helped with that.

Lessons From My Nervous Cat | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Flynn’s favorite blanket

I don’t know what in Flynn’s past made him so scared. But I know that right now he’s easily startled, worried, and only wants touched on his terms. So I decided to love him where he’s at and work with him. It’s not going to help if I lecture him, saying he’s got it so good now that he should just suck it up and move forward with his life. He needs patience. He needs someone not to push his boundaries because that will only prove we can’t be trusted not to go too far. He needs someone there for him when he does want held and petted.

And then I started thinking, isn’t that what hurting people need too? Love, understanding, acceptance, and someone to be there for them on their terms. But how many times do we meet someone who’s going through something we don’t understand and yet we treat them as if they’re “lesser than” because they’re still showing signs of their past trauma? Why are we so much more willing to extend grace and compassion to a nervous cat than to an anxious, depressed, or hurting human?

Then I had another realization. The way I’m treating my cat is the way I want to be treated when I’m anxious, nervous, or on the edge of panic. I want patience, understanding, and someone who will ask what I need instead of pushing me to just get over it. And it’s also the way I should treat myself (I’ve recently started seeing a counselor to get help working through my anxiety and she was delighted with this realization). We must give ourselves the same compassion, love, and permission to be ourselves that we long for from other people and should extend to others who are going through similar things.

So that’s what I’ve been learning from my nervous cat. I think he’s turning out to be a pretty good teacher.

Lessons From My Nervous Cat | marissabaker.wordpress.com

One Tasty Sandwich and A Tale of House-sitting

One Tasty Sandwich and A Tale of House-sitting marissabaker.wordpress.com

One Tasty Sandwich and A Tale of House-sitting marissabaker.wordpress.com
Nosey Dude

I spent most of the past week house-sitting for my Uncle, which largely involved spending time with his crazy animals. I’d thought the dogs (which I’d heard horror-stories about) would be the problem, since I don’t really care for dogs and I was a bit afraid of them. But they were perfect sweet-hearts while I was there (though right after I left they killed a skunk and rolled in it to prepare for my uncle’s home coming). It was the cats that almost drove me crazy.

I love cats. I think they are adorable. Just for the record, I still think that after spending the week with Nosey Dude and Remy (aka Hoodwinked or whatever you feel like calling him at any given moment). It’s just that they tried my patience a little. I was warned not to bother closing the bedroom door because Remy has figured out door knobs. So I left the door open, and Nosey demonstrated how aptly he was named by coming in to check on me every three hours. By “check on me” I mean pounce on my head (he must weigh 20 pounds) and walk around the pillow crying for attention. I managed to barricade the door on subsequent nights.

One Tasty Sandwich and A Tale of House-sitting marissabaker.wordpress.com
Remy

Remy has also figured out cupboard doors. I heard weird noises from the kitchen all week, and finally caught him sliding into the cupboard where clean dishes are stored. Yuck! I also found him knocking a knife from the counter to the floor. Not sure I want to know what his plans were for that.

Both cats were very talkative, and very interested in the kitchen. They were constantly telling me how hungry they were, and though they looked like they should be on a diet I did feed them three times a day as instructed (with a couple tiny little scoops in between. I’m a sucker for begging kitties). I didn’t spend much time cooking for myself, preferring to take advantage of the alone time to write. One thing I did whip up was a tasty sandwich. It’s not exactly my normal recipe type of post, but that’s what I’m going to share today.

I started by seasoning a piece of chicken with McCormic’s Grill Mates Montreal Chicken spice that I found in the cupboard. Then I just fried it in a thin layer of oil, like I do for Mushroom-Herb Chicken and Thai-Peanut Chicken.

One Tasty Sandwich and A Tale of House-sitting marissabaker.wordpress.comI’d brought some lettuce from home, and stopped at Meijer to pick up Swiss cheese (I could only find slices, which was convenient but why were there no bricks of Swiss cheese?), multigrain ciabatta rolls, and Olive Oil mayonnaise (which I’ve been wanting to try, since I’m a big fan of olive oil).

One Tasty Sandwich and A Tale of House-sitting marissabaker.wordpress.comIt all turned into a nice sandwich, particularly tasty with a juice smoothie on the side. I’ve developed a passion for Naked juice, particularly the Mighty Mango variety (though with this particular lunch I was trying out Strawberry Banana).

One Tasty Sandwich and A Tale of House-sitting marissabaker.wordpress.com
sandwich and smoothie

Turkey Sausage Chowder

Sausage Chowder recipe, marissabaker.wordpress.com

Here in Ohio, we’re back to weather that would make a penguin shiver. The only decent thing to do is make pots of creamy soup for lunch and then curl up with a warm blanket, a book, and a cat. Or you could share the soup with the cat, which Tiger seems to think is a good idea. He’s taken to begging whenever I sit down to eat anything, even if he knows he doesn’t like it (such as scrambled eggs).

I’m not sure if there ever was an original recipe for this soup — I wrote it down while watching my mother throw ingredients in a pot. It’s tasty and easy to make, which is why it and Cheese Burger Soup figure so prominently in our eating habits this time of year.

Sausage Chowder

print this recipe

Sausage Chowder recipe, marissabaker.wordpress.com3 to 4 potatoes, peeled and cubed (about 3 cups)

4 to 5 carrots, sliced or chopped (about 2 cups)

1 cup frozen peas

2 cups water

1/2 of a 13-ounce package of turkey sausage

1 teaspoon chicken base

2 teaspoons onion powder

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Sausage Chowder recipe, marissabaker.wordpress.com1 1/2 cups milk

black pepper and salt, to taste

a pinch of cayenne pepper

Place chopped potatoes, carrots, and peas in a large sauce pan. Add 2 cups water and bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, cut turkey sausage into cubes. Add sausage, chicken base, and onion powder when mixture in pot boils. Reduce heat and simmer till carrots and potatoes are done.

Sausage Chowder recipe, marissabaker.wordpress.comWhile vegetables are cooking, place flour in a small bowl or measuring cup and gradually whisk in milk until smooth. Once the vegetables are tender, add milk and flour to cooked mixture.

Add black pepper and salt to taste and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Turn up temperature to medium-high and stir regularly until the soup bubbles and thickens. Serve warm.

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my brother photo-bombing the Sausage Chowder, marissabaker.wordpress.com
my brother photo-bombing the chowder

Watching Cinderella

Having watched Frozen last Tuesday (I shoveled the driveway so I could get to the theater) I’ve been in a Disney watching mood. Since my sister and I had been discussing Lucifer the cat’s role in Cinderella recently, I decided to start with that film.

Is this really the story of poor, misunderstood cat?

"Watching Cinderella" by marissabaker.wordpress.com. Is this really the story of a poor, misunderstod cat?The mice describe Lucify as “meany, sneaky, jump at you.” But if Lucifer the cat could talk, what would his version of this film look like? Cinderella wakes him up early every morning, orders him to “come,” and then shuts the door on his rump. Next, she takes Lucify down to a kitchen inhabited by a dog – a dog that mocks him and dreams of chasing and eating him. If he tries to defend himself by getting that horrible dog thrown out of the house, Cinderella berates him.

But Cinderella isn’t the only person in this house who torments the cat. Cinderella says, “It’s certainly not my idea to feed you first,” which shows that it’s his owner’s idea to wake him up early. She also decrees that “Lucifer gets his bath,” a bath clearly meant to punish Cinderella at the cat’s expense. And then the stepmother leads a music lesson for her off-tune daughters in the room Lucify has chosen for his nap. It would make anyone grumpy.

"Watching Cinderella" by marissabaker.wordpress.com. Is this really the story of a poor, misunderstod cat?On top of this, he is surrounded by a mouse infestation encouraged by the woman who drags him out of bed every morning. These mice must be gotten rid of – they are on the tables, in the serving trays, stealing trim from the sewing room, and have the entire house honeycombed with tunnels and secret doors — but when he catches one Cinderella takes his prize away and shakes him. These aren’t just any mice either – they attack him unprovoked in the middle of breakfast! They pluck out his whiskers, pull his tail, topple a broom on his head, trick him and snap a button in his face, pull on his eyelids, then one turns into a horse and attacks him. Finally the mice come after him with forks and fire, the birds gang up on him to drop pots and pans on his head, and they set the dog on him and he falls out of the tower (in the original uncut version, it is clear that this fall was fatal).

Not A Grimm Tale

Contrary to what you might read when people are contrasting Disney fairy tales with the “original Grimm version,” Disney’s Cinderella is not based on the version told by the Brothers Grimm, but rather on Charles Perrault’s “Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper” (as stated in the opening credits). This is the story where Cinderella sleeps in “the garret at the top of the house,” the one with a fairy godmother and magic pumpkin, and where the stepsisters’ feet don’t fit the glass slipper. It does depart from Perrault’s tale in a few aspects. For one thing, Cinderella’s father is absent from the story, but not necessarily dead, nor is Cinderella included in the invitation to the ball. She does not even ask to go, and says “That would not befit me at all” when her stepsisters teasingly ask if she would like to go to the ball. The ball lasts two days, and she leaves her slipper the second night. Her sister’s beg her forgiveness at the end, and she arranges marriages for them with “two great noblemen of the court.”

"Watching Cinderella" by marissabaker.wordpress.com. Disney's version is based on Perrault's story, and both are very different than the Grimm tale
from Southern Belle Diary’s post on Cinderella

Grimm’s “Cinderella” is like Perrault’s concerning the main story (a girl is mistreated by her step-family, goes to a ball magically, leaves her shoe, and marries a prince), but there are significant differences. In this story, there is no fairy godmother – Cinderella’s father brings her a twig which she plants on her mother’s grave and it grows into a magical tree with a bird that lives in its branches and throws her “whatever she had requested.” That is where she gets the clothes for all three days of the ball. She does not loose her slipper because she is fleeing before the magic disappears – the prince coated the castle steps with pitch so she couldn’t run away so fast. The slipper that he gets as a result of this trick is made of gold. Both step sisters cut off parts of their feet to fit in the shoe, and the prince only notices the blood oozing out when they are halfway back to the castle. The Prince asks Cinderella’s father is he has any other daughters (he’s clearly alive in this version), and the man says, “No. There’s only little Cinderella, my dead wife’s daughter, who’s deformed, but she can’t possibly be the bride.” The prince demands to see her and marries her when the shoe fits. At the wedding, the stepsisters eyes get pecked out by birds.

Would the prince have married Cinderella if he didn’t have to chase her?

This isn’t so much a question inspired by re-watching Cinderella as it is something I’ve been wondering for a while now. Why does the prince pick Cinderella? Yes, I know it’s a fairy tale and he has to marry her for the happy ending, but it becomes an important question if you want to tell a story that fleshes out the prince’s character (my retelling makes them childhood friends to get around this problem). There’s even an entire song devoted to this question in the Rodgers and Hammerstein version: “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?

In this Disney film, the prince appears for the first time 48 minutes into the story. We don’t hear their meeting – we just see him bow and kiss her hand (it evidently wasn’t much of an introduction. She doesn’t realize he’s the prince, and he doesn’t know her name). He doesn’t even have a line until singing “So This Is Love.” Between the palace, and the waltzing, and the walk in the garden it’s a pretty impressive first date. It doesn’t seem like quite enough to lead to matrimony, yet the Grand Duke says, “He won’t rest until he finds her. He’s determined to marry her.” Not that the Prince actually does any searching himself – the Grand Duke is the one who travels around trying on slippers.

In the written version they spend a little more time together and there’s a reason for the secrecy about her name. Perrault’s version has a two-day ball, and Cinderella talks with her stepsisters in her princess guise. She has to keep her name a secret so they won’t know her. In Grimm’s version, the ball lasts three days and she hides her identity because the prince is actually following her far enough each night to question her father about the elusive princess.

While they do spend a little more time together in the written stories, it still doesn’t seem like enough to base a marriage on. The prince can choose any woman in the kingdom to marry, but the one he goes after is the mysterious princess who presents an intriguing challenge. Would she have held his attention if it had been easy to win her hand? I doubt it.

Sherlock, Roses, and God

prink rose 'Bill Warner'
‘Bill Warner’

I was reading Sherlock Holmes “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” the other day when I came across a quote about religion. I’ve read maybe a third of the Doyle’s Sherlock stories, but never thought of the character as religious before. In this story, Sherlock has just heard the particulars of a case and walks to the open window, where he plucks a rose.

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a conditions of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

yellow rose 'Aperitif'
‘Aperitif’

I’ve marveled at the roses growing in my garden as examples of God’s creative work, but not precisely in this light before. Sherlock’s belief that, “It is only goodness which gives extras” fits perfectly with this scripture:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with Whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.(James 1:17)

How many “extras” has God put in your life? How many gifts has He given that are not necessary for your existence, but make life so much more enjoyable?

Aside from flowers, one of the first things I thought of was books. If all my 1,000+ books disappeared right now I would 1) have the most outrageous panic attack, but 2) life would go on in that I don’t need books to stay alive. Music, fluffy cats, chocolate covered almonds, and the computer I’m typing this with are all “extras.”

red rose 'Mr. Lincoln'
‘Mr. Lincoln’

Considering this, the only thing I can think of to say is:

Praise ye the LORD. O give thanks unto the LORD; for He is good: for His mercy endureth for ever. Who can utter the mighty acts of the LORD? who can shew forth all His praise? (Ps. 106:1-2)