It's official – cat ownership is good for you! There are a number of health benefits of cat ownership, some of which have been scientifically proved, while others have long been known about by those who love cats. Let us take a look at some of them...
A study in Minnesota showed that people who own cats have around a 30 - 40% less chance of dying of a heart attack or stroke. This may be due to the fact that cats are known to lower stress levels – see later point here – or for some other reason, but it is definitely the case. Recent research has shown that the frequency of a cat's purrs has been shown to be medically therapeutic in a number of ways, so this probably contributes to heart health.
Cat ownership has also been shown to lower blood pressure. This is thought to be something to do with the frequency of their purrs as mentioned above, or perhaps just the general calming effect of cats. In one study, a room full of cat owners was observed talking to each other, and then talking to their cats. Talking to other people elevated their blood pressure somewhat, which was to be expected. However, when talking to their cats, the owners' blood pressure was not affected.
A common saying is that 'one small cat turns coming home to an empty house to coming home'. Certainly all cat owners know that cats are great companions, and this is particularly the case for those who live alone, who are very grateful for the companionship of the cat waiting at home for them. And a Swiss study showed that having a cat was similar to having a romantic partner in this respect. Even those who have been bereaved often find that their cat provides an understanding and non-critical companion during a very difficult time. People in mourning have reported talking to their cats to work out their feelings, which is sometimes easier since a cat will not feel the need to respond or judge, or find a solution to a problem which is insoluble, but simply listens quietly
Owning a cat is soothing, and stroking a cat can trigger the release of chemicals which can greatly reduce anxiety and stress. The frequency of a cat's purrs also seems to reduce anxiety, though the exact mechanism involved is not clear. And the unconditional love of a cat is useful in making someone feel less anxious.
Several studies and polls have shown than people think that they sleep better if they have their cat with them. Research shows that there may be really something in this. A study conducted at the Mayo Clinic Centre for Sleep Medicine showed that 40% of people slept better because of the presence of their cat, though a smaller number did say that the presence of the cat led to sleep disturbances. Of course, a cat leaping all over you at night is not conducive to good sleep, but a purring cat snuggling up to you...that is a different matter, as many of us know.
It may sound unbelievable, but it has been shown that cats can actually act as immune system boosters. Since having them around makes you feel happier, this feeling in itself is helpful to the immune system. It has also been shown that exposing children to pet dander and other allergens in cat fur results in increased resistance to allergens and asthma.
Clinical depression is an illness which often requires medical help, and simply owning a cat is unlikely to cure it. But it can help with the symptoms of mild depression, and also with the general feelings of being depressed which many of us have from time to time. Stroking a purring cat is an excellent antidote for these feelings.
This is not something which has been scientifically proved, but it is known by all cat owners. We may not have to take cats for walks as dog owners do, but cat ownership generally means quite a lot of physical activity is required, from carrying cat food home from the supermarket, to cleaning out the litter trays, to hoovering up cat fur from the floor. Particularly in the case of multi-cat households, these activities take up quite a lot of time on a regular basis, keeping cat owners physically fit and healthy.
This is not something which has been proved, but there is some anecdotal evidence of cats being useful to children with autism. Indeed, books have been written on the subject, dealing with specific cases in which a child was greatly helped. People with autism tend to have difficulties with communication, and sometimes they can better communicate with a cat than with other people. This has also been used in a form of therapy in which autistic children are taught to communicate using a cat.
Of course, this does not happen all that often. But again, there are a fair number of stories of cats saving their owners' lives. One cat in this country regularly warns her person if he is about to have an epileptic fit. And a cat in the USA woke its owners to warn them about a leaking gas pipe. And other cats have done similar things, sometimes becoming aware of danger by some means long before their owners were aware that anything was amiss.
So there you have it – scientific proof that owning a cat is good for you, both physically and mentally. But is that actually anything new? We cat owners always knew it anyway, didn't we?