Research suggests cat ownership aids — and hinders — anxiety and depression. Here’s how cats can influence mental health.
Feline friends are known for being the perfect antidote when you’re feeling down or stressed, with strokes, snuggles, and gentle purrs helping put smiles back onto faces.
As such, it’s little surprise that over 45 million U.S. households are home to at least one kitty.
However, having a cat around isn’t always smooth sailing for some. Pet ownership has also been linked to an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Scientific research into the effects of cats on our mental well-being is mixed.
“Having a cat has shown to have a positive impact on mental health, depression, and anxiety, for many reasons and in many ways,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Cassandra Fallon, the regional clinic director at Thriveworks in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
One smaller 2017 study found cat owners reported significantly lower feelings of depression than dog owners, and other research below explores how cats can influence specific symptoms.
For example, loneliness is a key symptom of depression, and feeling lonely has also been associated with the condition’s development.
However, having a cat can help combat this by “giving [their humans] a sense of being needed [and] providing companionship,” explains Dr. Jamie Whittenburg, aveterinarian at Cat World and director of Kingsgate Animal Hospital in Texas.
A 2006 study found single women (compared to those living with a partner or children) who had a pet were less likely to exhibit depressive symptoms.
Pet ownership has also been found to alleviate depression after losing a loved one.
Researchers in 2013
But it’s not just depression symptoms cats can assist in easing: Our feline pals can also aid in lowering feelings of anxiety.
Researchers in 2008 found that 44% of cat owners obtained “a sense of safety” from their cats.
Compared to non-pet owners, other researchers discovered those with furry friends reported less anxiety. Studies have also found cats (and animals in general) beneficial in reducing anxiety among children with autism and
Cats’ soothing influence may stem from a physiological effect, states Whittenburg. “Petting or cuddling your cat can reduce the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in your body,” she says. “This leads to feelings of calm and happiness, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, and a calming of anxiety.”
Furthermore, adds Fallon, being around a cat can help take our minds off negative thoughts. “Physical touch and having a cat to care for helps us to focus on a bigger picture than our internal [challenges].”
While this evidence all sounds great, there’s research indicating that owning a cat — or pets in general — has no effect on depression or anxiety. For some, it can even make mental health symptoms worse.
A 2020 study of adults 50 and older found no difference in depressive symptoms between pet owners and those without pets.
Meanwhile, having high attachment levels to a pet increased symptoms of depression and loneliness in a 2010 study. New Zealand researchers saw that those folks living alone with pets, “were more likely to report diagnoses of depression and anxiety.”
Two separate Japanese studies also explored the influence of cat ownership on adolescents and pregnant people, respectively.
Both found that those with cats had poorer mental health. While the reasons why were unclear, researchers suggested it may be due to cat owners:
- being associated with lower levels of self-esteem
- getting less exercise and time outdoors (compared to those with dogs)
When it comes to anxiety, symptoms may also be exacerbated by behaviors and activities associated with ownership.
Especially if you’re a new owner, “it can be a challenge,” says Fallon. “Not knowing how to care for basic needs can promote worry and anxiety about doing anything that may hurt them.”
Other factors can cause or heighten anxiety, too. Cutler explains that some stressors can include:
- behavior problems
- litter box issues
- medical concerns
- care of the cat if you have to be away from home
- financial responsibilities associated with ownership
It’s not just people that experience trauma, depression, and anxiety: animals can, too. For instance, felines can develop
Furthermore, as intuitive creatures, “cats are sensitive to the emotions and feelings of their owners,” notes Whittenburg, and they can “sense these emotions and may become anxious.”
According to Cutler, signs of cat anxiety include:
- changes in sleep patterns
- loss of appetite and weight loss
- hiding or trying to escape
- increased meowing or other vocalizations
- pacing or difficulty relaxing
- increased grooming
“Any of these signs should prompt a trip to your veterinarian,” adds Whittenburg.
Does ‘transference’ apply to pets?
If you experience depression, however, you don’t need to worry about “passing” symptoms on to your feline.
“It is my opinion that depression is not contagious, and a clinically depressed owner does not pose a danger to the mental health of their cat, as long as they can properly care for [it],” Whittenburg says. “I do not think a cycle will be established between pet and owner.”
As Whittenburg points out, “every human and every mental health diagnosis is different.” So, if you have depression or anxiety, it doesn’t necessarily mean that owning a cat will heighten symptoms.
However, she recommends that “owners speak to their physician prior to obtaining a new pet if there is a possibility that the stress of caring for [it] may worsen their condition.”
If you’re experiencing depression or anxiety, remember support is always at hand. Fallon advises that potential treatments include:
- talk therapy
- participation in other activities that can lead to improved symptoms
And, if your cat’s behavior or stress regarding its care contributes to your symptoms, you can speak with a vet about “support that is needed or education on the unknowns,” Fallon adds.
Millions of people have a feline friend and report that ownership brings joy, security, and companionship. Study findings also support such benefits.
However, some research has found that being a cat parent can increase symptoms of anxiety and depression. This may be due to factors such as ownership-related finances, naughty cat behaviors, and preexisting confidence and esteem issues.
More investigation — specifically around cats — needs to be conducted to understand better how the human-feline relationship can impact mental health. In the meantime, if you think your cat is contributing to your anxiety or depression, you can ask a doctor or vet about steps that could help.
Still curious about pets and our mental health? You can take a deeper dive by visiting our Pet Central Hub.