“The cat,” wrote author Muriel Spark in A Far Cry from Kensington, “will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding.”
“And,” she writes, “the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, […] so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost.”
“[A cat’s] presence alone is enough,” she says. “The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.”
Cats are often hailed as pets that can soothe and bring calm. That is, perhaps, why places such as cat cafés — where anyone can go and stroke or cuddle a cat while having a soothing drink — are so popular wherever they open.
However, aside from enthusiastic reports from cat owners about all the benefits of interacting with felines, what health and well-being benefits can we actually expect cats to bring?
In this Spotlight, we give you an overview of what scientific studies say about how cats can enrich our lives and boost our health.
‘A soothing massage for the soul’
Who among us hasn’t had the experience of being all set to do some business, only to fall into the deep Internet hole of cute cat videos? Such clips are so addictive, often the focus of many an hour spent procrastinating.
As research has shown, however, there is a good reason why we get hooked on cat videos: they can make us happier and help keep negative emotions at bay.
“Even if [individuals] are watching cat videos on YouTube to procrastinate or while they should be working, the emotional pay-off may actually help people take on tough tasks afterward,” says study author Jessica Gall Myrick.
Moreover, a survey conducted by the Cats Protection feline charity in the United Kingdom in 2011 found that people who spend time with cats or kittens report feeling calmer and less upset.
Of the cat owners who participated in this survey, 87 percent believed that sharing their lives with a cat improved their overall well-being, while 76 percent felt that their cats helped them cope with daily stress much better.
“Sitting with a relaxed purring cat at the end of a hectic day is a soothing massage for the soul,” explains Beth Skillings, a clinical veterinary officer at Cats Protection.
“Perhaps this is because the reassuring hum is generally associated with calmness and gentle communication, or perhaps it is because the frequency of the vibration is in the range that can stimulate healing.”
Indeed, although we may think of many cats as aloof and lacking the empathy usually associated with dogs, felines may actually be able to understand when their owners are feeling down and react accordingly.
So suggests a study published in the journal Animal Cognition in 2015. Authors Moriah Galvan and Jennifer Vonk found that domestic cats can read humans’ facial expressions to distinguish certain emotional cues, which may allow them to respond on a case-by-case basis.
Benefits for the body
Cats can also bring physical health benefits to their owners. For instance, one study that Medical News Today previously covered found that people who live with cats have a lower risk of experiencing a heart attack.
While this may simply be because “cat people” are naturally calmer and better able to handle stress, it is quite possible that having a feline friend is soothing and reassuring, and this ultimately contributes to protecting heart health.
This, the researchers explain, may be because infants exposed to such animals had more abundant populations of two gut bacteria — Ruminococcus and Oscillospira — which appear to have protective effects.
The authors believe that this is due to the fact that interaction with cats contributes to children’s absorption of a type of sialic acid, which does not naturally occur in the human body but which does appear to regulate inflammatory reactions.
How cats can ‘train’ us to do well
Aside from the psychological and physiological benefits that they bring, it turns out that cats can also influence our behaviors and personalities and help us do better in life.
Recently, a study suggested that cats can actually contribute to a person’s financial success in a completely unexpected way: by infecting them with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii.
This type of infection, known as “toxoplasmosis,” does not normally have many ill effects on adults, but it has, on occasion, been tied to serious health problems in the case of small children and individuals with a weak immune system.
However, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have now found that T. gondii can actually make people more likely to take the sort of risks that may lead to financial gain.
According to the study, people who been exposed to this parasite are “1.4 [times] more likely to major in business and 1.7 [times] more likely to have an emphasis in ‘management and entrepreneurship.'”
Cats also help improve behavior and social interaction in children who live with disorders that may affect their ability to “read” others’ emotions and respond to them.
In fact, a study published earlier this year found that children with autism spectrum disorder who grow up, and bond, with kittens display better behaviors, as the cats provide valuable emotional support.
“It seems that cats in families with an [autism spectrum disorder] child often provided valuable bonding, attention, and calming affection to the child,” the researchers write.
Cats’ contribution to research
Finally, cats might also provide valuable contributions to medical research, since some of the health problems that affect them are very similar to those that can sometimes affect people.
Just like humans, cats can also become infected with an immunodeficiency virus: the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).
Interestingly, recent advances in FIV research could actually help experts better understand HIV, too.
In a study published in March 2018, researchers discovered why cats with FIV might develop resistance to antiretroviral therapies, which reduce virus levels in the blood.
The authors believe that their new discoveries could actually help experts develop better HIV therapies for humans, so that therapy resistance would no longer be an issue.
Cats may be able to contribute to the greater — medical — good of mankind in other ways as well, however.
Research conducted at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, NH, argues that the parasite that can cause toxoplasmosis — T. gondii — could be used to create a vaccine against various aggressive types of cancer, including melanoma and ovarian cancer.
In their study, the researchers modified T. gondii to allow it to stimulate the human body’s natural immune response, focusing it on attacking cancer cells.
The mutant version of the cat-borne parasite, the authors report, “is the microscopic, but super strong, hero that catches [aggressive cancers], halts their progression, and shrinks them until they disappear.”
So, the next time you turn your nose up when taking your used cat litter to the trash, just take a moment to consider that this isn’t just poop — it may actually hold the key to the next big breakthrough in clinical research.