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Most days, at the crack of dawn, I am greeted by a small pair of teeth nibbling my feet. My youngest cat, all of four months, who usually sleeps curled against my tummy or sprawled across my bum, rouses a wee bit earlier than me and expects breakfast as soon as she wakes up. Baleful stares soon accompany the gnawing: my oldest, who snoozes (and loudly snores) all through the night and day, awakening only to partake of nourishment at regular intervals, has always demanded quick service (she would be a restauranteur’s nightmare, methinks).
The last entrant is usually the third one, my nervy, three-year-old boy who does not believe in co-sleeping and usually spends his night on the sofa in the living room. A picky eater, he mostly turns up in my room because he wants me to open the balcony door: he knows the breakfast bowls are stashed on a ledge there and really looks forward to his quick pre-breakfast survey of the outside world every morning.
I stumble blearily to the kitchen, accompanied by my three cats, who seem determined to trip me en route, open out cans of tinned food, retrieve the vessels from the balcony and set down their plates. The 5 am silence is now punctuated by the clatter of steel bowls and tongues slurping gravy.
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Finally, I return to the kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee and settle down with them to watch them eat, the air ripe with the smell of chicory-tainted instant coffee and preserved meat or fish. Not the most pleasant smell, but I don’t mind because, for once, I am at peace with myself and the world.
Those twenty minutes spent sipping coffee and watching my cats eat don’t just offer a much-needed meditative start to a hectic workday. Just watching them enjoy their breakfast, living completely in the moment, unencumbered by all those everyday human worries, is therapeutic. To spend quality time with a cat is to remember that self-containment, curiosity, awareness, prioritising rest and finding time for stillness are key to real contentment and happiness: important learnings when you are a highly emotional people pleaser and over-thinker who battles with crippling anxiety and self-doubt almost every other day. And yes, my cats help me stick to a schedule, which is key to handling my mental well-being.
So, I can’t say I was surprised by the findings of a new study that revealed that many people, especially those with strong and highly reactive emotions, seek and would benefit from contact with cats. According to the paper published in the journal Anthrozoos, although cats are frequently excluded from university-based animal-assisted programs to lower stress, they shouldn’t be. After surveying more than 1,400 university students and staff for the paper from over 20 universities, researchers discovered that people who possess a high level of emotionality, a measure of your emotional response to something, veer towards cats.
“Anecdotally, we’ve always been told that cat people are different from dog people and that most students are not interested in interacting with cats," said co-author Patricia Pendry, a professor in Washington State University’s Department of Human Development. “Our results revealed that students are interested in interacting with cats and that this interest may be driven by personality traits."
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As someone who is unabashedly a cat person, I’ve always found personality studies between cat and dog people a little too skewed towards the dog folks. Don’t get me wrong; I like dogs too: it is hard not to fall for their waggy tails, the general air of enthusiasm and spontaneous declarations of ever-lasting affection. But I don’t feel that uncurling in the stomach, that sudden sense of awe when I watch a cat (and I mean any cat — domestic, stray, feral or wild) do something absolutely mundane: stretch after a nap, way towards you with an upright tail or stalk something, whether it is a deer in the wild, a bird in your backyard or a teaser toy.
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Unfortunately, unlike dog people, who are offered adjectives like loyal, friendly, outgoing and a team player, cat people must reconcile to being called introverted, individualistic, eccentric, neurotic, emotionally more dysregulated (more prone to stress and anxiety), and oversensitive. Sure, on the plus side, we are more intelligent, less conservative, more open to new experiences, and more curious and complex, but I’m not sure if it makes up for the fact that we are seemingly less likeable than the person with Fido on a leash. (Fun fact: A bunch of studies reveal that having a dog ups your chances of getting a date considerably, especially if you are a man). And while the list of gifted people who loved cats, which includes Charles Baudelaire, Emily Bronte, Ernest Hemingway, John Lennon, Florence Nightingale, Abraham Lincoln, Freddy Mercury, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and TS Eliot, is a long one, one also can’t deny that every single person on this list did suffer from some mental health disorder.
Having said that, I’m inclined to believe there is nothing like spending time with cats to help you feel manage your emotions. Stressed? Stroke a cat and listen to it purr: plenty of research proves that a cat’s purr is therapeutic, helping lower anxiety and stress. Sad and upset? Hug or pet your cat; it releases oxytocin, the love hormone, a cuddle chemical which regulates our emotional response. Bored? Yes, just watch your cat: their ability to entertain themselves is unparalleled. Heart-broken? Go back to that cat again, as learning to love like one, with clear boundaries, an unnegotiable sense of self, emotional reciprocity and establishing personal space, is probably the best thing you can do for your love life. Though I am not a fan of the poet Charles Bukowski (the man was horrifyingly misogynistic), I do really relate to his poem, My Cats.
“when I am feeling
all I have to do is
watch my cats
I know exactly what he means.