Cats and Mental Health

A cute cat sitting with balls of colourful wool.

Research shows that cats can have a positive impact on your mental health.

They provide a great source of comfort, companionship and motivation for their owners and help reduce anxiety and stress. This concept has also been referred to as 'purr therapy.'

Cats are not just great company, low maintenance and independent; they are also very good for you. Our head of research and ex-veterinarian Dr Eva Chylarova says “Looking after a pet can bring structure to your day, reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness and act as a link to other people.”

The benefits of cat ownership on wellbeing

In 2011 we surveyed more than 600 people as part of our collaborative study with Cats Protection. Half of those people described themselves as having a mental health problem. The results highlighted some of the benefits of feline ownership:

  • 87% of cat owners feel that the animals have a positive impact on their wellbeing
  • 76% find that coping with everyday life is easier thanks to the animals
  • Stroking a cat is a calming and helpful activity.

One of the survey participants, 33 year-old Jacqui Walker said:

“I have suffered from SAD for many years and last winter it was so bad that I was signed off work and was put on anti-depressants. I was really struggling with life and felt like I had nothing to look forward to.

“This all changed the day that I met Timothy who I adopted from Cats Protection. Less than six weeks after he moved in I was able to return to work full time. Even my doctor was surprised with the change in me. As I said to him, maybe he should have prescribed me a cat instead of Prozac!”

Cat cafés?

The benefits of cats on wellbeing are becoming increasingly accepted in society with cat cafés cropping up in several major cities, including Le Café des Chats in Paris, France and Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium in London, England.

These cafés are home to up to a dozen friendly felines who weave between the café tables and curl up in customers' laps, acting as a form of 'purr therapy' to the general public. 

Myths about cat ownership and mental health

Recent stories of the link between ‘cat ladies’ and self-harm have been misunderstood. The reports are based on a study in Denmark which showed that women who had antibodies against Toxoplasma gondii (T.gondii), a parasite which can be caught from cat faeces, were more likely to go on to self-harm.

However, it is important to note that, although there appeared to be an association, this study did not prove that T.gondii infection was causing women to self-harm. There may have been various mental health, medical, personal or social causes which this study did not explore. In addition the study was specifically looking at the association between self-harm and the parasite itself, rather than those women who owned cats.

The parasite, although commonly found in cat faeces, can also be caught from unwashed vegetables, undercooked meat and contaminated water. In most people with the infection there are minimal or no symptoms, although pregnant women and people with impaired immunity do need to continue to exercise sensible precautions. Therefore it is having good hygiene which is key to preventing infection.

Not a cat fan?

Cats are not the only animal that can offer a great form of companionship. Other pets can also act as a form of therapy for a range of mental health problems and learning difficulties including depression, ADHD, loneliness and Autistic Spectrum Disorder.