Getting a pet!

Background: 

Interacting with animals, especially dogs, has been shown to increase the love chemical called oxytocin. Playing with animals is associated with an increase in serotonin release. You may know of serotonin from popular antidepressant medications.

Interestingly enough, there is little medical evidence that I could find that shows that pets decrease depression. I found some information showing that animal therapy is effective in nursing homes for decreasing loneliness but very little for depression. In fact, I found a study that a robot companion, named Paro, was also able to decrease loneliness in a care facility. Residents talked to and touched the robot more than the resident dog!¹

A population study out of Norway showed interesting results as well. 12,093 people between 65 and 101 years old were assessed for depression. The results showed that cat owners had the highest depression scores, then dog owners and last on the list, was non-pet owners. Wow.  But this poses an interesting question. Do pets make people depressed or do depressed people get more pets to help with the symptoms?²

Effectiveness:

(3) An interestingly titled series of 3 studies, “Friends with Benefits” has shown positive health benefits of owning a pet. The first study of 217 people showed pet owners had more self-esteem, were more physically fit and had better relationships with other people than people who didn’t own a pet.

The second study had 56 dog owners. The dog owners had a higher sense of meaningful existence, control, and self-esteem.

The third study included 97 pet owners. They came into the lab and then were subjected to social rejection (sounds like a fun study). They were then asked to draw a map of campus, write about their best friend or write about their pet. The people who drew the map felt badly after the social rejection. The people who wrote about their pet or best friend did not show any negative feelings after the rejection.

My experience: 

I lived alone in Kansas City for a time of my life. I was looking for a companion.  I wanted a puppy but I lived alone on the top floor of an apartment complex. This is not the easiest way to potty train a dog. So, I started looking for a cat. My roommate had a cat during my first year of residency. That was the extent of experience with cats.

I searched online and found a long hair grey and white cat named Scarlett. She was listed as part Maine Coon. I contacted the company. Unfortunately, Scarlett had already been adopted. They did send me pictures of similar cats. One was an all-black kitten with a mane and big eyes that made him look straight out of a Pixar movie. We exchanged Facebook messages and agreed to meet at a Petsmart halfway between each of us.

I had nothing that a cat needed and no practical knowledge of how to take care of one but I still went to the Petsmart. She walked up with a pet carrier and scooped the little guy right into my arms. It felt like when someone forces you to hold a baby at a family function. I didn’t even know how to hold a cat. I cradled him as best as I could, signed some paperwork and then she waited while I bought a cat carrier and assembled it in the store. Ridiculous. The next few minutes passed in an instant and I now had a cat named Nolo (nickname is now Momo) in a cat carrier in a shopping cart an hour away from my apartment. So now I walked around the store and bought litter, a litter box, food, treats, toys, a food and water dish, and a brush. I was absolutely unprepared. I got him home, we played for a little and went to sleep.

It is one of the strangest things to be woken up to a smell. Light, sounds, and touch happen all the time. Not smell. This night was different. Nolo had a bowel movement that was pulsating and moving slightly. I forced myself closer and found that the stool was riddled with worms. It was as much worm as it was stool. It was horrifying. I then went to check on Nolo and his chest was soaked with drool.

I held the stress at bay and was able to collect a stool sample and bring him to the professionals. The vet was fantastic. She quelled my fears with a topical anti-parasitic medication. She explained that when cats have upset stomachs that can drool excessively. I applied the medication to the back of his neck where he couldn’t lick it off and have never seen a worm again and the drooling stopped.

Fast forward a few years and I am absolutely smitten. My new stress with my cat is the guilt of leaving him alone when I go to work. A part of the happiness that he brought came through building a relationship with him. It has many parallels to building a relationship with a person and has even helped me build better relationships with people. When my cat gets some of his mess outside of his litter box. I get mad and then I look at Nolo and he just seems curious about what I am so worked up about. I see the futility in getting mad about it, clean it up and move on about my day. I found that I started to apply this to people as well. If someone cuts me off in traffic, then I feel the surge of anger. I could honk my horn or yell, but I see the futility and I just keep driving and move on.

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Momo

References:

1. Robinson H, Macdonald B, Kerse N, et al. The psychosocial effects of a companion robot: a randomized controlled trial. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2013 Sep;14(9):661-7.

2. Enmarker I, Hellzén O, Ekker K, et al. Depression in older cat and dog owners: the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study (HUNT)-3. Aging Ment Health. 2015;19(4):347-52.

3. McConnell AR, Brown CM, Shoda TM, et al. Friends with benefits: on the positive consequences of pet ownership. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Dec;101(6):1239-52.

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