Here, we take a journey into the scientific research behind mental health benefits of pet ownership, specifically, the opinion-dividing cat
The seminal work of Friedmann and colleagues in 1980 revealed that pet owners who had suffered a heart attack were four times more likely to survive, for at least one year, compared to non-pet owners. Since then, there has been scientific evidence that pet ownership is beneficial to human physical health. This evidence has grown as different avenues are explored.
Despite the comparably equal split in pet ownership between dogs and cats, much of this growing evidence relies on dog interactions with people. Presumably, this is because of the ease with which dogs are willing to interact in a research environment as opposed to independently minded and choosy felines!
This has resulted in a large volume of evidence that dog ownership is of benefit to the physical and mental health of their owners, some evidence that the cat ownership is of benefit to physical health in owners, but a relative paucity of evidence that cat ownership is beneficial to the mental health of their owners.
Scientific evidence that interaction with cats can have mental health benefits may have been lacking, but a number of recent studies are beginning to show potentially positive mental health benefits to cat ownership.
Evidence of benefits
A 2011 survey by Cats Protection UK and the Mental Health Foundation questioned 600 cat-owning and non-cat-owning respondents of which half described themselves as having current mental health problems.
- 87% of people who owned a cat felt it had a positive impact on their well-being
- 76% felt they coped with everyday life much better due to the presence of their cats
- 50% felt their cats presence and companionship was most helpful
- 33% felt stroking their cat was a calming and helpful activity
In a 2015 study carried out by Indiana University, 7000 individuals were asked about their moods, emotions, energy levels and positivity before and after viewing internet cat videos. The result was that a large proportion of the individuals reported improved positivity, better energy levels and reduced negative emotions. The conclusion from the study was that simply watching cat videos benefits mental health.
In a very recent 2018 study, over 11,000 Japanese people over the age of 65 were questioned on their pet ownership experience. They found that the cat owners amongst the respondents, reported higher levels of social interaction with neighbours, less social isolation and more trust in their neighbours than those who didn’t keep a pet – basically cat ownership somehow made them more outgoing, felt less lonely and gave them a talking point to initiate conversation.
An underlying mechanism?
This 2012 review investigated whether animal-human interaction (AHI) might have an impact on the release of oxytocin in humans. The majority of the studies they reviewed revolved around dog-human interaction. They found that there was significant evidence that interaction with animals (petting and playing) resulted in a release of oxytocin, particularly more so if the animal was already known and bonded to the human it was interacting with.
Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that has numerous effects on the human body. When released into the brain it is believed to impact emotional, cognitive and social behaviours. It is believed to reduce stress responses including anxiety.
They concluded that from the work to date it was possible to confirm that AHI led to improvement of social attention, behaviour, interpersonal interaction and mood. AHI also reduced stress-related parameters including heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels and led to a reduction in self-reported fear and anxiety.
At this stage, it does not seem to be much of a stretch to imagine that evidence might soon arise that cat-human interactions might result in the same types of oxytocin release – especially given the “real world” benefits reported anecdotally by cat owners.
Whilst there is no scientific smoking gun demonstrating that cats have benefits on mental health there is plenty of growing anecdotal evidence that their presence can have a supportive and calming effect, feelings of loneliness can be reduced by a shared existence, stress and anxiety can be reduced and feelings of well being can be brought about by interaction.
Early scientific evidence suggests it won’t be long before a proven link is made and the mechanism can be identified as being likely, delivered through the action of oxytocin.
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