The Purrfect Stress Reliever. Why Petting Cats Reduces Anxiety

After a long, stressful day, there are few things as calming as coming home to cuddle up with your purring feline friend. As you sit down on the couch, your cat hops up beside you and nestles into your lap. The soothing vibration of their purr seems to melt your worries away. A wave of relaxation washes over you as you gently stroke their soft fur. Your breathing slows and your muscles begin to unclench. There’s just something so comforting about bonding with these amazing creatures. Research has shown there are proven physical and psychological benefits to petting cats. Keep reading to learn more about why quality time with cats can be so therapeutic.

Releases Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a role in social bonding, reproduction, childbirth, and the period after childbirth. It is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone” because levels of oxytocin increase during hugging and bonding between romantic partners or parents and children. Oxytocin also promotes maternal behavior and bonding between mother and child.

person petting a cat

When you pet a cat, levels of oxytocin increase in both you and the cat. This is similar to when a human mother bonds with her baby. The act of stroking a cat releases oxytocin in the cat’s brain, which makes the cat feel calm and relaxed. The cat’s purring also causes you to release more oxytocin, creating a positive feedback loop. This oxytocin release reduces stress levels in both you and the cat.

One study found that when women interacted with their pet cats, including talking, petting, and playing, their oxytocin levels increased. The highest levels occurred during affectionate behaviors like hugging, kissing, and petting the cat. Oxytocin levels were higher when the cat chose to approach the owner. Having a cat initiate closeness and touch seems to be especially powerful for oxytocin release and bonding.

Lowers Blood Pressure

Petting cats has been shown to lower blood pressure in multiple studies. One study found that cat owners had lower systolic blood pressure readings than non-cat owners (1). Researchers suggest this is because petting a cat releases oxytocin, a hormone that relieves stress and brings down high blood pressure.

Another study looked specifically at how a cat’s purr can help lower blood pressure. They found that frequencies in a cat’s purr fall into the range that can improve bone density and reduce blood pressure (2). The sound vibration of a cat’s purr may physically help lower blood pressure.

Beyond the physical act of petting a cat, simply having a cat around the house can lower blood pressure. A 10-year study on 4,435 participants found that cat owners had a 30% less risk of dying from a heart attack than non-cat owners (3). Researchers believe living with a cat long-term helps lower stress and blood pressure.

Overall, evidence clearly shows that interacting with cats can significantly reduce blood pressure. Petting or living with a cat releases oxytocin, reduces anxiety, and helps owners relax – all mechanisms that lower high blood pressure.

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3317329/
cat reducing anxiety
2. https://www.clevelandheartlab.com/blog/do-pets-help-your-heart/
3. https://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/features/6-ways-pets-improve-your-health

Reduces Anxiety

Petting a cat can help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression in humans. According to a study published in BMC Pediatrics, children who interacted with pet cats had lower anxiety scores than children without pet cats[1]. Petting a cat releases oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding and trust. This can create a soothing effect that makes us feel more relaxed and less stressed.

Cats seem to have an innate ability to sense human emotions and moods. There are many anecdotal reports of cats comforting their owners who are feeling sad or anxious by cuddling up to them. While the exact mechanism is unknown, some experts believe cats may be able to detect subtle changes in human behavior, pheromones, or vital signs that indicate emotional distress. Having a cat provide comfort and companionship during difficult times can be very therapeutic.

Promotes Mindfulness

Petting a cat can be a form of mindfulness meditation that helps us be more focused and present. As you gently stroke a cat’s fur, you tune into the sensations and rhythms of the moment. This brings your awareness to the here and now instead of being preoccupied with the past or future. One study found that interacting with a therapy cat for just 10 minutes significantly reduced negative thoughts and increased feelings of well-being (1). Slowly and mindfully petting a cat requires concentration and can fully engage all your senses. You observe the softness of their fur, listen for their purrs, see the contentment on their face, and feel connected in the present (2). This mindfulness practice helps reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

(1) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/02/well/mind/how-to-be-mindful-with-your-cat.html
(2) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201403/6-science-based-reasons-touching-and-holding-your-cat-is-healthy

Social Support

Cats can provide valuable social support and companionship, especially for people who live alone. Studies have shown that pets can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness.[1] Simply petting a cat has been found to elevate levels of oxytocin, the “love hormone” that promotes bonding and attachment.[2] A cat’s presence can provide a sense of comfort and security for their human companion. Cats are independent yet affectionate on their own terms, making them ideal pets for people who want companionship without the high maintenance demands of a dog. Their soothing purrs and soft fur make them comforting and calming friends. For elderly individuals or shut-ins, a cat can motivate them to keep active by providing daily care and interaction. By being a living thing that depends on them, cats give their humans a sense of purpose. Their antics and unique personalities also bring joy and laughter into their human’s lives.

[1] https://gottawritenetwork.wordpress.com/2022/09/21/a-case-for-cats-by-sofie-kelly/
[2] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/pets-can-support-healthy-ageing-s%C5%82awomir-ni%C5%BCa%C5%82owski
elderly woman with cat

Complimentary Behaviors

Cats and humans have evolved complementary behaviors that enable them to benefit from interactions with each other (source). Humans provide food, shelter, and caretaking for cats in exchange for affection and companionship. The independent nature of cats meshes well with modern human lifestyles – cats are lower maintenance pets compared to dogs. Both cats and humans use visual cues and vocalizations to communicate, and they have mutual capacities to read each other’s body language and emotions.

Studies have found that cats display more affectionate behaviors like purring, rubbing up on owners, and gentle nibbling towards owners who talk sweetly, slow blink, and use other positive interactions (source). In return, cats provide soothing company and stress relief benefits for humans through activities like purring and kneading which release oxytocin. Overall, the compatible natures of human and cat behavior allow for mutually satisfying bonds to develop when the two species interact.

Soft and Soothing

A cat’s soft, silky fur is inherently soothing to pet. As the hand gently glides across the cat’s body, the smooth and repetitive motion brings a calming effect. Studies show that repetitive tactile stimulation like petting reduces anxiety by releasing feel-good hormones in the brain like serotonin and dopamine (Richmond, 2019). The quiet purring felt through the body further enhances relaxation.

Additionally, the soothing vibrations from a cat’s purr have been shown to promote pain relief, wound healing, and lower blood pressure (El Gato Veterinary Clinic, 2023). The combination of a cat’s soft fur and gentle purring creates a synergy that melts away stress and brings calming comfort. Petting a purring cat allows one to get lost in the present moment, focusing awareness on the pleasurable tactile sensations.

Conclusion

In summary, petting a cat can be incredibly relaxing for numerous reasons. The act of petting leads to the release of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which makes us feel content and bonded with our furry friend. Physically, petting a cat has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Mentally, it reduces anxiety levels and promotes mindfulness as we focus our attention on the present moment of interaction. Socially, our cats provide companionship and emotional support. The complementary behaviors of mutual grooming relax both human and cat. Finally, the soft fur and soothing purr of a cat create a calming sensation.

After a long stressful day, few things are more comforting than curling up on the couch with my cat Luna purring in my lap. As I gently stroke her fur, I can feel the tension melting away. Luna’s affection and comforting presence help me leave the stress of the day behind. A few minutes of this shared relaxation makes everything feel right in the world again.

References

Lorenz, K. (1937). The companion in the bird’s world. The Auk, 54(3), 245-273.

Odendaal, J. S., & Meintjes, R. A. (2003). Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs. The veterinary journal, 165(3), 296–301.

Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 234.

Virués-Ortega, J., & Buela-Casal, G. (2006). Psychophysiological effects of human-animal interaction: Theoretical issues and long-term interaction effects. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 194(1), 52-57.

Allen, K., Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2002). Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: The truth about cats and dogs. Psychosomatic medicine, 64(5), 727-739.

Wells, D. L. (2009). The effects of animals on human health and well‐being. Journal of Social Issues, 65(3), 523-543.

Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 234.

Nimer, J., & Lundahl, B. (2007). Animal-assisted therapy: A meta-analysis. Anthrozoös, 20(3), 225-238.

cat therapy session

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