Psychological Benefits of Having a Cat

Dr. Ragen T.S. McGowan, PhD
By Dr. Ragen T.S. McGowan, PhD
Updated: 5/10/20242-4 minutes
a woman with a cat

Most pet owners are aware of the psychological benefits of having a cat. If you’ve ever felt calm and relaxed after spending time with your feline, you know firsthand how they can impact your mood.

Whether they’re curled up in your lap or nudging you for a treat, research shows the presence of a cat may improve your quality of life.*

In fact, cats are known to have several psychological and social benefits for people. Read on to discover all the positive ways our feline companions affect our mental health. 

Cats & Mental Health

Cats are sometimes incorporated into different forms of therapy and wellness activities for humans.

Pet therapy connects people navigating a health problem or mental disorder with a trained animal (and its handler). The goal is to use interaction with a cat (or another animal) to help someone cope with a particular challenge, as part of their formal treatment process.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are also utilized to comfort people with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. In most jurisdictions, for an animal to be qualified as an ESA, a psychiatric professional needs to determine that a patient’s mental health would benefit from the presence of the animal. 

Additionally, cats may be included in Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA). These typically entail the use of animals in settings such as a retirement home or hospital to assist people with special needs.

How Cats Affect Our Minds & Bodies

For a full appreciation of the relationship between cats and mental health, it helps to look at how our minds and bodies react to pets. 

Interacting with cats triggers the release of hormones in humans such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. These are often associated with good, positive feelings. 

Oxytocin in particular has been recognized for its role in bonding and stress relief, as well as its physiological effects such as decreased heart rate and slowed breathing.

Additionally, cortisol, sometimes referred to as a stress hormone, decreases when people spend time with cats. Cortisol, along with high blood pressure, can lead to high cholesterol and hypertension.

When combined, the impact of these hormones can reduce stress and strengthen your overall health.

Psychological & Social Benefits

Research shows a link between cats and human emotions.* The perks of having a feline companion can start in early childhood and last into old age. 

Indeed, across all ages, the emotional benefits are similar. The stronger the bond kids have with their cats, the more they feel attentive and less sad, according to research. This resembles findings for adults and seniors

Here are some of the positive ways in which felines affect people:

  • Companionship. Having a cat companion gives you a chance to bond and forge a relationship with another being. This can be especially important for people who live alone and experience anxiety. 
  • A sense of nurturing. Nurturing, a common expression of love and affection, is important for humans. Studies show when people are no longer able to care for or nurture others, rates of depression go up and overall health declines.* Cats are an outlet for people’s need to nurture another being.
  • Decreased anxiety. In addition to providing perks like elevated mood, cats may also increase calmness and reduce feelings of isolation. 
  • Increased socialization. For some people, socialization can be a stressful experience, leading to an increase in blood pressure and heart rate.* They may expect to be judged by others. With cats, however, people can talk freely, without fearing what other people might think.

Does Petting a Cat Reduce Stress?

Yes, petting cats can reduce stress. In a study, college students who spent as little as 10 minutes per day petting a cat experienced decreased levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress. 

For people, petting a cat is a way to express affection, which helps satisfy their need to nurture. Depending on your pet’s personality, it may also be pleasing to them and become an important form of nonverbal communication.* 

Can Cats Sense Sadness in Humans?

Cats can sense sadness as well as other emotions like anger in people. They’re also able to detect emotions among other cats, according to research

They associate auditory and visual cues like frowning with how they’re treated when their pet parent is feeling sad.

Thanks to research—and pet owners’ personal experiences—we know there are many psychological benefits of having a cat. 

For more on the relationship between cats and humans (and other topics), visit our Pet Expertise page to get insight from our Pet Experts.

*Case, L. P. (2003). Benefits of Living with Cats. In The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition & Health (pp. 103-105). Blackwell Publishing.

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