My grandmother got Alexander for me the morning after my dad had his heart attack. The lanky red tabby kept me company during a strange, uncertain time. And even after Dad came home from the hospital, Alexander remained my go-to feline. He lived out in the tool shed with our other cats; whenever I was sick or hurt myself, however, one of my older brothers would be sure to bring him inside for me.
Since then, other cats have followed his lead and taken me under their paws when I’ve needed all the moral support I could get. A lot of times, they’ve known when I’ve needed it before I have.
“Cats who are close to their owners may be amazingly tuned in to their feelings,” observes Patricia Fry. “Some owners claim their cats try to console them when they’re unhappy, and I’m sure it’s true. … Indoor cats above all others seem to take on what we call human characteristics because they live so closely with us.”
A Comfort of Cats
For every bit of bad press that cats have gotten over the centuries, there is a real-life story that contradicts it. Right now, for instance, I’m watching a YouTube video of Hima, a plushy gray cat, trying to console her person, a little girl who has just hurt her foot. Hima nuzzles the child, pats her face with a gentle paw and snuggles against her. She doesn’t understand why her human is unhappy, but she responds to her the way she would to a kitten in distress.
Here are only a handful of stories from the past about cats who have touched humans’ hearts:
- Abraham Lincoln found relief — briefly — from the horrors of the Civil War by rescuing 3 kittens while visiting General Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters in City Point, Virginia.
- Florence Nightingale, who suffered from chronic brucellosis and depression, likewise turned to her cats for comfort and consolation in later years, as the still-visible “unseemly blurs” of paw prints on personal papers show.
- Edgar Allan Poe’s tortie, Catterina, couldn’t keep all his demons at bay, but she did sit on his shoulder while he wrote, “purring as if in complacent approval of the work proceeding under [her] supervision” and bringing a little light into a grim impoverished life.
Today, cats are recognized for their skill as furry therapists, although dogs get more of the jobs. It’s a matter of perception, of course: Dogs are seen as more manageable, whereas cats are the mavericks, the loose canons, etc.
Dogs, however, have their limitations, according to Linda Chassman of Animal-Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado; they’re helpful in the early stages of therapy because they’re “so accepting and non-judgmental. … But it’s not very realistic when you’re trying to help a client who has social skills issues or who has anxiety, problems in the family, communications issues [or] boundary issues. The dog just puts up with bad behavior, whereas the cat won’t.”
Cats are also invaluable when it comes to working with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In an interview given over a year ago, one woman talked about how her cat provided her with the emotional support she desperately needed after being shot. She would wake up crying, she recalled, only to find Simon “licking my tears. He was my bridge back into the human world because he kept me from shutting down altogether.” He could reach her when nobody else could.
Seniors and Cats
One of my vets, now retired, adopted a kitten when he was 84. Widowed for a number of years, he’d been living alone with his 2 dogs when the little white feline with the Charlie Chaplin-esque markings grabbed his finger and held on. “He’s so much fun, so much company,” the vet laughed when I interviewed him a few years ago. “It’s just great for me to have him around.”
Other seniors I know feel the same way. An old family friend, now in her early 80s, has had a series of cat buddies (coincidentally, the current feline-in-residence came with the same name as her late husband). A retired professor adopted one of my foster kittens. And I do some cat sitting for a woman in her 70s who happily shares her condo with a black-and-white lady cat named Spangles.
Watch Hima comfort her sad human:
A Matchmaking Service for Humans and Cats
In February 2015, Cornell University’s Feline Health Center launched a new program in conjunction with the Tompkins County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TCSPCA), the Feline Club at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Ithaca College’s Gerontology Institute (ICGI). Cats for Comfort matches feline-minded residents at the nearby Longview retirement community with homeless cats.
It is, in writer Merry Buckley’s words, “a new kind of matchmaking service.” The cats get out of the shelter and into loving homes, and the seniors reap the benefits of pet companionship, more active lives and less susceptibility to diseases. They now really do have a reason to get up in the morning and someone to share that morning with.
These are just a few ways in which cats give back to us. As a 2015 study put it, “The role of cats in therapeutic processes continues to amaze researchers and medical professionals, as we learn more and more about their impact on human lives and healing.”
OK, so cats can’t cure everything, but they can make a difference — a big one.