The healing power of pets

Cats have always been an integral part of my family. As an only child, my first cat, a Burmese named Cinnamon, was my primary playmate and foremost friend.

Since I’m a writer, it should come as no surprise that I wanted to explore, in book form, the bond that can develop between a human and an animal— not just my bond with my current cat, a Korat named Ting, but my father’s bond with her and the way she helped him, especially after he had a quadruple bypass where some of the grafts didn’t “take.” On his darkest days, our cheerful, mischievous, adorable cat was exactly the distraction he needed. She elevated his mood.

Cats certainly can play a role in a person’s mental health, but it turns out they do more than that. A 10-year University of Minnesota Medical Center study showed that cats improve the physical health of cardiac patients. Of the more than 4,000 participants, those with cats showed a 30 percent lower risk of death from heart attack than those without. Ironically, the study was conducted by a man with a cat named Ninja.

There was also a University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine study that showed cats purr at a frequency between 25 and 150 hertz. Frequencies in that range have been shown to increase bone density and encourage healing—in the animal as well as their human. I know it sounds a little woo-woo, but it’s pretty incredible when you think about it.

I can’t speak personally to a cat’s medicinal value, but I can testify that, when it comes to comfort, there’s nothing like a cat. In October 2013, I was diagnosed with relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis—the “good kind” of MS, but still serious and a challenge. As I came to terms with my “new life,” the cat was there beside me. Only then did I fully understand what she had meant to my father—how having her as his constant companion had helped him recover as best he could.

We lost my dad to heart disease in 2008. Less than a year later, Ting was diagnosed with her own heart condition—second degree AV block. She needed a pacemaker in order to survive, but they don’t make pacemakers for cats. Ten thousand dollars and a human pacemaker later, Ting is a happy, healthy cat.

As for me, I have my good days and my bad days—mostly good. I’m often asked how I manage taking care of a cat on those rare days it’s hard to take care of myself. My answer is this: When you love someone, you find a way. So I encourage any and every one with a chronic illness (or any illness, really) to adopt a cat—to not be afraid of the responsibility. Our responsibilities make us who we are. Don’t underestimate your ability to rally.

Lissa Warren is the author of "The Good Luck Cat: How a Cat Saved a Family and a Family Saved a Cat," newly released by Lyons Press. Follow her on Twitter