I’ve written letters for clients explaining their need for a therapy or emotional support animal. The problem I’d run into with cats was that animals were supposed to be trained to provide this service. How do you train a cat? From a mental health perspective, however, it’s clear how cats and other animals can be therapeutic, and it’s not about animal training at all. It’s about how our nervous systems respond to animals.
If you’ve ever enjoyed being in the presence of any pet, it’s useful to picture what this process was like for you. Imagine being with your pet: do you feel calmer, more relaxed? Notice your breathing: does it slow down? Notice your senses: are you enjoying the softness of the animal’s fur, the sound of a purr, the sight of their peaceful expression when napping or their joyful energy when playing? Then there’s the knowledge of our pet’s behavior and our own ability to respond well to it. Notice whether your pet will always greet you in a certain way when you get home, what your care and other predictable animal routines are like, whether you can trust your connection to your pet no matter what else is changing in your life and environment.
All of this adds up to our nervous systems feeling calm and comforted by our pets in ways that can bring a deep sense of relief from the fight or flight responses that are a result of stress. It also means that when we are away from our pets and under stress we can still imagine them—their touch, sight, sounds—and how we feel in their presence. Even this brief visualization may bring us some much needed stress relief. Once calm, we have much more capacity to cope with new challenges that come up.