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The Gifts Our Pets Give Us

How My Cat Made My Life (and Mental Health) Better

pets krista mangulsone

When I was 10, I asked for a puppy for Christmas. And so, in the early months of 2002, I was taken to one of the local humane societies on the condition that I would get a kitten— something that would require less work and get along better with our older cat.  We took home a young calico kitten who I dubbed Friendly, because she’d immediately warmed to me.

More than 17 years later— after over a year of combating feline kidney disease—I took my best friend to the vet’s office and stood by her as they laid her to rest, watching as her labored breathing finally stopped. In the weeks following her death, I’ve had time to reflect on everything she gave me and the everyday gifts pets offer us that help with our mental health.

Motivation: A Reason to Get Up

As a kid, I was typically let off the hook from dealing with the responsibilities of having cats.  Once Friendly and I moved out on our own, however, my most important job became caring for her. This only grew more necessary as she aged and new health problems set in. It didn’t matter if I was gasping for air because my chest was too tight from anxiety: if my cat needed an injection of fluids to keep her from getting too dehydrated, I had to face my discomfort with needles and my hatred of putting her in any kind of pain to help her. It didn’t matter if I was exhausted from a day of work and wanted nothing more than to sleep and pretend the day hadn’t happened: if my cat needed eyedrops for an ulcer in her eye, I needed to be awake. Even during the times when I was least motivated to get out of bed or do anything more than watch TV, I had to get out of bed. Someone needed me.

Patience: “Why” Doesn’t Always Matter

I was fortunate in that Friend was not typically destructive in her habits. But, like me, she often experienced stress and even sometimes had medications prescribed for it. When we moved to my first apartment, she was terrified. She had no way of understanding why this had happened and left a pee stain on just about every set of sheets I owned at the time. But given time, she adjusted.

 

A year or two later, I realized she was refusing to use her litter box. I tried placing her there physically but soon discovered that as far as she was concerned, tile floors had become lava. Her litter box being in the bathroom now made it impossible to use. So I moved it. It would be years before she dared to walk on tile again and to this day, I have no idea why. But the “why” didn’t matter. What mattered was how I could help her and, by proxy, myself.

Positivity: Stop and Pet the Cat

As a kitten, Friendly used to race through our kitchen and hallways, back and forth, every morning. Like a little racing horse. There was rarely a day it failed to put a smile on my face. That, combined with her clumsiness, sometimes rolling around on her back until she slipped right off whatever she was perched on, brought our whole family smiles and laughs regularly. And when I was sick as a kid, she and our older cat Scrappy always seemed to know. They’d keep me company thru the fever.

 

As an adult, Friend often pushed herself into the midst of situations, annoying me until I stopped what I was doing and focused on her. Being forced to stop and pet this furball demanding my attention was therapeutic in its own right. Just enjoying communion with another being at a time when I lived far from any family and from many of my friends, was healthy. I was not alone.

friendly cat

Affection: Companionship Without Words

When I came home from work, Friendly would often greet me. If I’d been away on vacation, she’d meow and chatter at me for several minutes, following me around as if chastising me for leaving her behind. Once out on our own, she nearly always shared my bed (or perhaps vice versa, since I often found myself contorting to fit around wherever she happened to rest). On cooler nights, she would snuggle under the covers next to me, purring. Snuggling with her helped me realize that my discomfort with physical contact with other humans wasn’t rooted in a lack of enjoyment of touch. It was about trust. That same trust helped us to weather even the worst of her medical struggles together.

 

The greatest gift many pet owners seek and receive from their pets is affection. As social animals ourselves, we crave bonds with other creatures. And while not every pet is ideally suited or interested in forming meaningful bonds, my bond with Friendly meant more to me than many of the bonds I’ve had with other humans. She made me laugh and cry and feel less alone in moments when I needed those things. Little did I know, in 2002, how many gifts I was really being given.

Katie Clarke

A few words about me

Katie is a gentle soul with a snarky side who loves curries, traveling, and cats, is deeply afraid of losing all her friends and/or being lost at sea, and thinks cake is dreadfully overrated as a food item. She aspires to be as good a human being as she can be and to leave the world a little better than how she found it.