Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cats can make owners happier, healthier and gentler

Credit: USA Today

Why do 33% of the households in the USA have cats? And how do you explain why there are 16 million more pet cats than dogs?

Recently, we published a story on this page about how many ways dogs are good for our health and well-being. Cat lovers responded, demanding equal time. And so ... to cats:

Yes, kittens are adorable. Yes, they can grow up to be good mousers and are very entertaining to watch. And yes, cats are independent and don't require as much care as dogs. But research shows cats can also be caretakers for us and our families, improve our health and teach us and our children to be kinder, gentler souls.

Theodora Wesselman is 94 and has lived the past two years with her elderly cat, Cleo, at TigerPlace, a retirement community in Columbia, Mo. Their enduring friendship is a classic example of how humans and animals can become family and look out for each other.

Wesselman visits other residents, and her children stop by, but Cleo is her best friend, she says. They've been together nearly 21 years.

They start and end the day together.

"She sleeps on her own pillow right beside mine," Wesselman says. "In the morning, she pecks on my cheek to wake me up. It's really sweet. I pet her, tell her I love her and take her to the kitchen to prepare her food."

Cleo and Wesselman "live for each other. I really think they keep each other going," says Mary Kay Swanson, a TigerPlace employee.

Research shows that being able to care for a pet improves our morale, helps validate us and encourages us to take care of ourselves, says Rebecca Johnson, director of the University of Missouri's Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction. The body of research is leading more retirement communities and universities to roll out the welcome mat for pets.

Is one pet better for you than another? A cat can't make you healthier by begging with leash in mouth to go out for a jog, but a purr can lower blood pressure and quiet a stressed-out brain, research shows.

And they insist on compassion. They're enforcers, Johnson says. "A dog will let you bang it on the head and still love you. A cat won't do that. Children have to learn to be gentle to cats or the cat will go away."

Some parents welcome feline help reinforcing values during child-rearing, and the cats become an integral part of the family.

When one of their Bengal cats dashed out a window this summer, Jud and Katherine Smith of Cumberland, Maine, and their two daughters were so upset that they took out a full-page ad for three days in The Portland Press Herald with their telephone number, a photo of Kaden and an offer of a $500 reward.

Three weeks went by before someone found Kaden 7 miles away from home. He was lighter and tired, but he's "back with his family," Jud says.

Cleo's health recently concerned Swanson. Before veterinarians detected she had diabetes they could treat with insulin, Swanson talked with Wesselman about putting Cleo down.

Cleo was standing nearby during the conversation. Wesselman was distraught.

"I think Cleo overheard us talking," Swanson says. "She rebounded the next day. I've never seen Theodora so grateful or happy. Cleo is doing well. She's off insulin, and we're monitoring her blood on a weekly basis."

That morning peck on the cheek and nightly tuck-in endure.

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