Illustration: Stephanie Howden
I'm curled up on the couch, trying to breathe deeply. Depression can feel like thick sludge seeping through your bloodstream, everything heavy and slow. The grip of anxiety can feel electric, like you're a sputtering mess of wires, one wrong move away from exploding. Experiencing both at once can really make you feel like you're crazy.
But I can always count on the soothing power of purr therapy. My big black cat, Gatsby, leaps up and climbs all over me, choosing the best place to snuggle up. And pretty soon, the steady rhythm of his purring, the feel of his velvety fur in my fingers, and the warmth of his body start to quiet the thrashing thoughts in my mind. His purrs vibrate through his body and into mine, and slowly, things start to feel less terrible.
Cats are strange, mysterious creatures. But in their majestic quietness, pets can be one of the purest sources of comfort and affection you’ll ever find. They're there for us in the simplest way – and it can bring a calming warmth and rhythm into our lives that nourishes us on so many levels.
“Pets help make us better humans,” says Brisbane psychologist Christine Bagley-Jones. “They are unequivocally good for your mental health.
“From the simplest perspective, it’s a relationship, and humans thrive when they’re in good relationships. If you have a healthy, wholesome relationship with an animal, they give you a reason to smile and laugh daily. And the skills and emotional range that you experience have so many beneficial qualities.”
Pets for love and company
Humans are social creatures, designed to crave touch and interaction. It floods us with oxytocin – the hormone that makes us feel lovestruck. Unlike many relationships, the love you share with your pet is refreshingly uncomplicated. You’re free to really be yourself and let your emotions breathe, without the risk of human foibles like judgement, jealousy or irritation. In their silent company, you somehow feel understood.
“It’s a beautiful expression of unconditional love,” Christine says. “It’s very reciprocal – your pet will love you back, and that love will be really observable. Even in cats.”
It could be a slow blink of big, adoring eyes, a wet nose kissing your cheek, or just the warmth of a small body curled up next to you. Loneliness is a huge risk factor for poor mental health, and simply having another living creature around can make a real difference.
One large study published in BMC Psychiatry in 2018 found that pets can help people manage long-term mental illness by alleviating loneliness, reducing stress and providing distraction. The love of a pet opens you up. It brightens your mood, and gives you a good dose of the emotional nourishment humans need.
“Pets give you that full range of emotion,” Christine says. “They make you laugh with their antics. Sometimes they’ll elicit tears, like when they’re being particularly beautiful.
You have that great depth of love and compassion. They’ll pull at your heart strings in all different directions, and that’s good for us – it’s good for the human condition.”
Pets for mindfulness
Pets have a natural way of calming us down, helping to dissolve stress and anxiety. Some studies show that cuddling or stroking an animal can slow your heart rate and lower blood pressure. The rhythmic, repetitive motion can be meditative, and the soft sensation of fur against your skin brings instinctive comfort.
If you choose it to be, sitting quietly with your pet can be a magical way to practice mindfulness. “You can choose to really focus your attention on that activity,” Christine says. “You’re in the moment, you’re really present, you’re snuggling up together or gazing into each other’s eyes, and your pet is loving it. If you just allow all five senses to be immersed in that moment, it’s hard to find a better example of mindfulness.”
Pets for routine and purpose
Of course, looking after another living creature is a big responsibility, and it’s not for everyone. But if you can manage it, the act of caring can give you a sense of purpose that’s really rewarding. It’s an opportunity to display kindness, which can give you a feel-good rush known as a ‘helper’s high’ or ‘giver’s glow’.
“That selfless act of feeling responsible for the wellbeing of another is extremely good for a person’s sense of self,” Christine says. “That sense of being needed gives you a feeling of purpose and belonging.”
Pet care also demands routine, which [studies](https://lemosandcrane.co.uk/resources/RISE Pet ownership and mental illness.pdf) have shown can provide helpful structure for people who are at risk of poorer health – like the elderly, or people living with mental illness or other chronic conditions. At its simplest level, caring for a pet can give you reason to get up in the morning.
“Having a pet also fills in time – there’s not much room for boredom when you’ve got a pet,” Christine adds. “It can also give you a sense of responsibility for your own care, because you want to stick around and be well enough to look after your pet. I see that in mature aged people all they time – getting a whole new lease on life when they get a pet, because now there’s something they’ve got to be keeping in mind when they’re engaging in their self-care.”