January 16, 2020

The Pet Effect and Depression

by Petra Brunnbauer
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The Pet Effect and its link to depression

The Pet Effect

The past few weeks I spent a lot of time on Facebook, checking in on the Kitten Lady’s page. For some time now, I have followed her on Facebook and YouTube. She is my hero when it comes to kitten and cat rescue work. I have bought her books and watched her videos to learn skills to better care for my own cats.

I have celebrated when she and her team successfully rescued a kitten. And I have grieved with her when one of the kittens did not make it. This, sadly, was the case last week. Hannah rescued a young cat mom of only nine months. Someone surrendered the cat to the shelter as a male cat. When staff arrived the next morning, the “male” cat had given birth to two kittens.

Pine and Twinkle

One kitten had already passed away, but the Kitten Lady (Hannah Shaw) took in mom cat, Pine, and the surviving kitten, named Twinkle. Pine was fighting a nasty upper respiratory infection. At only a few days old, Twinkle also ended up contracting the infection from her mom.

Hannah and her team fought around the clock for six days, giving baby Twinkle every intensive care option available. Twinkle put up a valiant struggle, but in the end, her little body did not survive the infection. I checked in every few hours and watched Twinkle’s progress throughout the week.

Pine and Twinkle

Image Source - https://www.facebook.com/kittenxlady/photos/a.1863665607220720/2472069863046955/

The Pet Effect brings together strangers

Thousands of strangers from around the world came together on Facebook to support one tiny kitten. These kind and caring human beings sent messages of support for Hannah, Pine, and Twinkle. We donated money, so Hannah could purchase emergency supplies and equipment. A community of complete strangers rallied around a tiny being they had never met.

When Twinkle lost her fight with pneumonia, Hannah and her team were exhausted and grieving. Her posts echoed my own feelings of utter devastation. They battled non-stop, all-out for six days to save a tiny kitten life. Our online community was devastated when she could not be saved. I cried and I felt like this had been my own kitten I lost.

This whole experience made me think about the cats I rescued over the years.

Appreciating my cats

It also made me snuggle my cat, Tut, a little closer every night. I was extremely grateful he had survived his nasty upper respiratory infection as a kitten. Thankfully for me, my fight for his life, all-out, non-stop for nearly three weeks turned out very differently than Twinkle’s story. I am honestly not sure what I would have done, if he had not made it.

The fight for Twinkle also brought back memories of two of my fur-babies, Nacho and Toffee. They were beautiful, fluffy brothers and I had a very special bond with them. Nacho disappeared one day and even after years of searching, posting flyers, and checking in with vets and shelters, he did not return. I was completely devastated and to this day I still dream that he is sitting at the door, meowing impatiently at me.

His brother, Toffee, spent nearly 18 years with me. He developed a tumor in his bladder and despite our very best efforts and six months of round the clock care, I had to eventually make the decision to let him go. It was the most difficult decision I ever had to make. I wanted to be selfish and make him live as long as I could.

“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”
                                                 - Immanuel Kant

The toughest decision I ever made

But, I realized that I loved him so very much that it was my responsibility to carry the burden of this decision, so he could be pain-free and at peace. I owed it to him because he and his brother had saved my life many years ago. Nothing in my life has been the same, since Toffee passed away. I miss him every day, but I know it has made me a better cat-mom to my other cats. And every single day I am grateful for the time we got to spend together and the memories we made together.

I also know that I am and always will be deeply invested in any rescue cat or kitten I bring home. I do treat them like my children. Some of you will chuckle in agreement now and some of you will roll your eyes. And I am totally alright with being a crazy cat lady because I have seen the amazing relationships that develop through rescue work. The bonds I have formed with my fur-babies are lifelong and have made me a better person and a better cat advocate.

The Pet Effect

And most importantly, those relationships have kept me alive.

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Why today is about the Pet Effect

You might be wondering why I am writing about Twinkle and my cats today. The truth is that I could not imagine my life without cats in it. I would not be here today without my cats. Many people do not fully understand that bond. Anyone battling depression who has bonded with an animal during that time usually understands very well.

When I was depressed I thought about bringing home kittens a lot. I was unsure that I could care for them in my state and I was afraid my depression would keep me from being a good caregiver. My counselor helped me calculate my finances very carefully. I wanted to be sure I could pay for food, toys, and vet visits.

It was important to me that my cats would not lack anything.

Since I lived with my parents, I knew I could have cats. In a rental situation this would have looked a little different. And even though I tortured myself for many months about the decision, eventually I went for it and picked out two tiny little, fluffy kittens - Toffee and Nacho. In my heart I knew I had made the right decision.

In love with my kittens

Taking care of two super active fluffballs was definitely challenging. Strangely enough though, even when I could not care for myself, I was always there for my cats. They were my priority. Sometimes, I could not get out of bed to shower or brush my teeth. But when my cats were hungry or wanted to play, I never thought it was too much or too cumbersome.

I loved watching them zip through the living room, tackle each other, or pounce on my feet. I felt so loved when they snuggled up to me, purring loudly. When I left for university a few years later, the two of them were safely stowed in my car, joining me on my adventure. Wherever I went, they went too. And much later, Tut came on a plane to France with us. My cats are a lifelong commitment, no exceptions.

The Pet Effect literally saved me because countless times when I wanted to end it, I looked at my cats and knew how much they needed me. I had to get stronger to be there for them. And that’s why getting a pet when you are depressed can help a lot.

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The Pet Effect for depressed people

Pets actually have many benefits for depressed people. But, I want to stress here that you shouldn’t just run out and get a pet when you cannot care for it. It will be a lifelong commitment and you have to be willing and able to take that on.

Make sure you go through your living situation and your finances, to ensure your pet will be safe and comfortable with you. If you feel you cannot care for a pet in your current state of health, make the right decision and put off getting a pet until you are ready.

The pet effect best friends
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How pets affect us

They are just there for us

But, if you have thought everything through and you are looking forward to picking out your companion, there are a lot of amazing things you can look forward to. One of the things I love most about my cats is how their presence can just flip a switch in me. No matter how stressed out or upset I am, when I come home and my purring cat snuggles up to me, I am ok. Strange, right? It’s like they can just de-stress me with their presence.

When I start petting them I can feel myself calm down. I breathe slower and I feel more balanced. My outlook changes from “I can’t handle this” to “everything will be alright”. I know that my cats sense when I am upset or teetering on the edge. They can also sense when I am crying. Those are the times they spend a lot of time just pacing around me and sitting on me. It’s like they won’t leave my side until they know I am better.

Since it was (and still can be) extremely difficult for me to express myself when I am depressed, having a “telepathic” house companion is great. I don’t need to explain when I am feeling down. My cats just know and are there for me. They don’t offer well-meant advice on what I should do. They just spend time until they sense I find my balance again. Works for me! 

The pet effect toffee

Unconditional love and trust

I also feel like my cats offer me their unconditional love and trust. Now, don’t be fooled because this can definitely take some time. Cats need to get to know you first. But, if they spend their entire life with you, the love and trust becomes unshakable. No matter how I feel, they do not judge. They accept me just as I am, with all my flaws and shortcomings. At the end of the day, I am their human and that’s all they care about. How well I cope in the human world is not very important to them as long as I love them 🙂

I think we often look for this unconditional love and acceptance from our family and friends and do not find it there. It does not surprise me that a lot of depressed people prefer spending time with their pets to spending time with their family. It makes me chuckle because I can be the same way at times. It’s just so much easier watching a movie with my cats and not having to explain anything.

The Pet Effect changed me

My cats definitely changed me for the better. When I was battling depression, I often isolated myself and found myself in endless negative spirals. This changed drastically after I brought home my first two kittens. It was literally impossible to feel nothing. They were so cute and funny. Nothing was off limits with them and their shenanigans knew no bounds. Even when I wanted to brood and close myself off, it was impossible with my kittens.

Over a very short period of time, they achieved what my meds had failed to do for me. I changed the way I acted on a daily basis. This was a huge step toward breaking through my depression ultimately. Without doing anything than just being themselves, my cats managed to change my feelings, my behaviors, and my outlook.

The pet effect merlin and lara

I was busy loving my kittens

Part of why my behavior changed was the fact that I was busy with my kittens. It was a lot of work to care for them. They needed to be fed all the time. Sometimes they wanted dry food and sometimes wet food. Then, I had to brush them and play with them. If I didn’t help them take their energy out, they would just take it out on the furniture later. I had to clean their litter box and check on all the supplies. Some days they had kitten poopsplosions and I had to bathe them and disinfect the house.

Now, this might sound overwhelming, but it actually helped me put my focus on something other than my depression. And that was invaluable. Nothing really kept my attention and I could not focus on anything when I was depressed. The brain fog was present all the time and made it near impossible to function. It was different with my kittens, whom I could watch and cuddle all day long. I am not sure why, but it is part of the pet effect.

The healing touch

And of course I had to touch my kittens all the time. From giving them little kisses, to touching their soft toe beans, poking their stuffed bellies, and petting their fluffy heads, I was touching them all the time. I am sure you have heard people say that the human touch is healing. One thing that happens when we are depressed is that we tend to minimize or completely avoid human touch.

Pets force us to do the opposite because they want to be touched. They want to snuggle with us and lick our faces. They want to be petted and carried around. We have no choice but to oblige because it feels good. I love waking up in the middle of the night to a purring kitten beside my head. It is just so soothing and comforting.

As soon as I come home, my cat wraps himself around my feet until I pick him up and cuddle him. No, I can’t just ignore him or he will take apart my couch later. When we are forced to immerse ourselves in touch, it begins to heal us. And the pet effect without doubt delivers on that. 

The Pet Effect fosters responsibility

The final thing I noticed with my cats is that they are really the only thing I take responsibility for. When I was depressed, I was often unable to work. Even though I wanted to be responsible and earn my living, it was just not possible at times. The same happened with college. I had the best intentions of getting myself out of bed and to school, but often I was not able to. I could not retain the information from class or textbooks and had to take time off.

Eating, showering, brushing my teeth, and keeping my clothes clean followed the same pattern. My depression made it difficult to keep up with these tasks and often I just succumbed to not being able to do them. I stayed in bed and just floated in the darkness.

That changed with my kittens. All of a sudden, I had to follow their schedule and their routine. I could not stay in bed and float in darkness. Tiny kitten teeth would penetrate my toes and then my earlobes until I moved. A purr engine sounded in my ear and eventually a rough tongue would start licking my face.

If that didn’t help, loud screams followed. The kittens took turns tearing across the bed, pausing just long enough to scream bloody murder. You are kidding if you think you can keep floating in darkness with two tiny kittens. It’s not happening. And I was thankful for that.

The pet effect kittens

Creating a routine

Having a routine helped me with my depression. Being responsible for two tiny beings (and later three more tiny beings) shifted my focus away from being overwhelmed to absolutely needing to care for them. My reward was two kittens with stuffed bellies, purring loudly, passed out on their backs in my bed, their paws above their heads, making funny suckling sounds while they slept. My heart exploded and I could not remember feeling anything like that in a very long time.

Having a routine helped me with my depression. Being responsible for two tiny beings (and later three more tiny beings) shifted my focus away from being overwhelmed to absolutely needing to care for them. My reward was two kittens with stuffed bellies, purring loudly, passed out on their backs in my bed, their paws above their heads, making funny suckling sounds while they slept. My heart exploded and I could not remember feeling anything like that in a very long time.

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The dark side of the Pet Effect

And that brings me back to Twinkle, Toffee, and Nacho. Because I would be remiss not to talk about the dark sides of bonding with a pet. There are the obvious points like the cost of caring for a pet. A horse, for example, can be very expensive to care for properly.

There is also the part where sometimes the pet is not litter-trained and you will have to clean up and disinfect a lot. Or, if your pet is sick, you may need to clean and do laundry for extended periods of time. Pets can also leave nasty smells in their cages or their litter boxes, which are sometimes impossible to get rid of.

Dogs will need to be walked frequently, which you might find takes too much time out of your day. Some pets can be extremely destructive and you may come home to your furniture in little pieces or your expensive pair of shoes torn to bits.

There are also emergency situations like accidents, which could require you to pay a hefty sum for veterinary care. This also happens frequently at the end of a pet’s life when they may need specialized palliative care.

The loss of a beloved pet

But, really none of those compare to when your pet passes away. Whether it is at the very beginning like with Twinkle, or after a full life of nearly 18 years with Toffee, the effects are the same. Utter devastation at the loss. With Toffee, I had about six months to prepare, as his tumor grew in an inoperable spot and his kidneys needed daily fluid injections and specialized diet and care. With Nacho, it happened overnight, as he disappeared.

The pet effect loss

I don’t think you will ever be prepared for a pet’s loss, but it is inevitable. And especially for people with depression, it is important to think about that in advance. The loss of a pet can cause trauma and throw you right back into a depressive episode. It is vital to have support at that time, so you can process the grief and work with your depression in a safe environment.

Having said that, I would still not do anything different. Although the loss of my pets changed me and affected me deeply, I am still so grateful for the time we had together. My life was better because they were in it and I will never forget that. The pain of their loss is something I have to accept in return for loving them. And in reality, it is the same with your family, your loved ones, your children, your friends, and anyone you care for deeply. We just don’t like to think about that.

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The Takeaway

For me, getting kittens was hands-down the right choice. Throughout my battle with depression, they were the constant that kept me going forward. My cats are the reason I kept going when I wanted to quit. The pet effect brought so many benefits into my life and I could no longer imagine my life without cats.

If you are thinking of getting a pet while you are depressed, there are a few things you should check out first. You want this to be a positive experience for you and your pets. That means ensuring you are prepared.

Think about your financial situation and decide whether you can shoulder the costs of food, toys, beds, litter, flea and tick treatments, de-wormer, vaccines, vet checks, and pet sitters. There will also be an adoption fee to consider. If you are renting, make sure you can have a pet in your house or apartment.

And finally, take some time to think about your depression and if you feel up to caring for a pet. The rewards are truly amazing and can help you heal. But, if you do not feel up to it there is no problem with waiting until you do.

The pet effect dogs

Feel the love

Everyone deserves to feel loved and appreciated. Pets have a knack for giving us just that. I have personally experienced the healing powers of having cats. Most people I know consider their pets as their family and have forged lifelong, loving bonds.

Bonds between owners and pets feel much like bonds between children and parents for many pet owners.

In my personal experience, the love between my cats and I far outweighs the cost and effort put into caring for them. But, it is important to be realistic and understand how much work will be required. You also need to be prepared for when your pet passes away. It could certainly cause a depressive episode and you will need time to grieve and heal. At that point, it will be helpful to have a support system in place, to help you through this difficult time.  

The pet effect kitten love

I hope you embrace the healing powers of the pet effect and find your very own pet companion!


anxiety, depression, fur babies, pet effect, pet healing, pets, the jorni

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