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August 8 was International Cat Day. Cora probably started the morning like she does any other: by climbing on my chest and pawing at my shoulder, demanding attention. I likely sleepily lifted up the comforter and she snuggled underneath it, sprawled at my side. For Cora — and thus for me — every day is International Cat Day. Cats may wake us up at 4a. The answer is obvious to me — and probably to all cat lovers out there, who need no scientific research to justify their fierce love.
But scientists have studied it anyway and found that, while our feline friends may not be good for our furniture, they might make some contribution to our physical and mental health. According to one Australian studycat owners do have better psychological health than people without pets.
On questionnaires, they claim to feel more happy, more confident, and less nervous, and to sleep, focus, and face problems in their lives better. Adopting a cat could be good for your kids, too: In a survey of more than 2, young Scots ageskids who had a strong bond with their kitties had a higher quality of life. Getting lonely waiting on something to fall in my lap more attached they were, the more they felt fit, energetic, and attentive and less sad and lonely; and the more they enjoyed their time alone, at leisure, and at school.
With their gravity-defying antics and yoga-like sleeping postures, cats may also cajole us out of our bad moods. In one study, people with cats reported experiencing fewer negative emotions and feelings of seclusion than people without cats. In fact, singles with cats were in a bad mood less often than people with a cat and a partner. Your cat is never late for dinner, after all.
Even Internet cats can make us smile. People who watch cat videos online say that they feel less negative emotion afterward less anxiety, annoyance, and sadness and more positive feelings more hope, happiness, and contentment. But watching cats annoy their humans or get gift-wrapped for Christmas does seem to help us feel less depleted and regain our energy for the day ahead.
I can attest that a warm cat on your lap, giving your thighs a good kneading, is one of the best forms of stress relief. In one studyresearchers visited married couples in their homes to observe how they would respond to stress—and whether cats were any help. Hooked up to heart rate and blood pressure monitors, people were put through a gauntlet of daunting tasks: subtracting three repeatedly from a four-digitand then holding their hand in ice water below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for two minutes.
People either sat in a room alone, with their pet roaming around, with their spouse who could offer moral supportor both. And during the tasks, the cat owners also fared better: They were more likely to feel challenged than threatened, their heart rate and blood pressure were lower, and they even made fewer math errors. Out of all the various scenarios, cat owners looked the most calm and made the fewest errors when their cat was present.
In general, cat owners also recovered faster physiologically. Why are cats so calming? Cats offer a constant presence, unburdened by the cares of the world, that can make all our little worries and anxieties seem superfluous. Cats are beings we care for and who care for us or at least we believe they do. And people who invest in this cross-species bonding may see benefits in their human-to-human relationships, as well.
While these correlations may seem perplexing, it makes sense if you consider cats just one node in your social network. When someone—human or animal—makes us feel good and connected, it builds up our capacity for kindness and generosity toward others.
As that study of Scottish adolescents found, kids who communicate well with a best friend are more attached to their cats, probably because they spend time playing as a trio. In one study, researchers followed 4, people for 13 years. People who had owned cats in the past were less likely to die from a heart attack during that time than people who had never owned cats—even when ing for other risk factors like blood pressure, cholesterol, smoking, and body mass index.
In another studyJames Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania followed two dozen people who had just gotten a cat. They completed surveys within a day or two of bringing their cat home and then several times over the next 10 months. At the one-month mark, people had reduced health complaints like headaches, back pain, and colds—although on average those benefits seemed to fade as time went on.
We experience more negative emotions and suppress them more, a technique that makes us less happy and less satisfied with our lives. Yet another bone to pick with our canine counterparts. What I lose in sleep I make up for in soft, furry love.
Kira M. Newman is the managing editor of Greater Good. Follow her on Twitter!
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