Having kittens

Dr Stacey A. Bedwell on addressing the anxieties of pet ownership.

I have had pets for my whole life. As a child, I grew up with cats and I couldn’t wait to get a cat when I bought my own home earlier this year. I was so excited that I reserved my kitten several weeks before we moved in, and collected her two days after. 

I was looking forward to the bounding energy and cuteness that comes with a kitten (our two cats were already adults well before I was born). I wanted a new little friend to cuddle next to me on the sofa whilst marking countless research reports, reading dissertations, updating lecture slides and trying to meet external funding deadlines. I am happy to say Ruby – who is now not so much a little kitten as more of a hyperactive teenage cat – does this important job very well. However, she has also caused me countless hours of stress and anxiety. Just who decided that cat ownership is therapeutic? 

The ups and downs

Over recent years I’ve noticed a growing buzz in the media surrounding the positive impact that animals, mainly dogs and cats, can have on mental health and wellbeing. Universities are now routinely arranging ‘puppy rooms’ during exam periods to alleviate stress for students, and countless cat cafés have popped up around the country. 

This isn’t just media hype. Research shows psychological and physiological benefits of having a pet (see, for example, Bradley Smith’s 2012 review or Deborah Wells in the March 2011 edition of this magazine). One study, led by Allen McConnell, found that pet owners typically have higher self-esteem, tend to be less lonely, are more conscientious, less fearful and less pre-occupied than those who do not own pets. Other benefits are thought to include an increased sense of purposefulness and reward, improved sleep quality and lower stress and anxiety. Additionally, pet ownership is thought to play a role in the socio-emotional development of children.

Yet the research wasn’t uppermost in my thoughts the first night we had Ruby. She was left in the kitchen, happily sleeping in her carrier. I had checked everywhere for possible escape routes: all seemed fine. At 5am I was woken by a panicked looking husband telling me he can’t find the kitten. After some puzzled searching, a tiny meow came from underneath the kitchen cabinets. This resulted in us pulling our new kitchen apart at 5am and playing cat meowing sounds on YouTube to entice the little mischief out. She did the same thing a couple of days later when she heard a lawnmower for the first time. Since then, Ruby has got inside the bed, under the sofa, in the garage, inside the radiator cover and inside cupboards. Thankfully she’s getting a bit too big to fit in most of these places now and has taken to sitting in the bath… a far easier place to find her. 

All the time I spent anxiously searching for my cat, and wondering if she was ok when I left her to go to work for the day, got me thinking about what I could do to reduce anxiety caused by the thought I could lose her. The feeling was counteracting the positive psychological benefits of owning a cat in the first place! 

Venturing outside

The first thing I did was install a camera in my kitchen. It’s set up permanently in a corner and links to an app on my phone. This camera is one of the best things I have ever bought. Sometimes I do get a little obsessed with checking it, but it really does give me peace of mind that she’s ok and hasn’t got herself into any trouble. I stopped feeling so anxious about my kitten and started to see the psychological benefits of having her again. 

All was fine, until Ruby got to six months old and it was time to start letting her outside. I don’t live near any busy roads, but I do still see a lot of posts on social media about cats being run over or going missing. Most are in other areas of my town, but it still makes me worry. There are two things I did to try and combat this and make myself feel more comfortable letting Ruby outside. First, I attached a Tabcat tracking device to her collar. This is a radio-controlled tracker, nothing very hi-tech, but also not too invasive for a small cat to wear. This allows to me locate Ruby with a remote control when I can’t find her, which quite often is when she has got herself inside the bed again and can’t get out! I’ve also managed to train her (yes, cats can be trained!) to come to the kitchen for a treat when her tracker beeps, so hopefully if I ever do need her to come inside and I don’t know where she is, this will help.  

In addition to the tracker, I installed a microchip cat flap. I went for a Sureflap one, that comes with a hub with little cat ears that flash every time my cat goes in or out. I can also monitor the door on my phone and lock / unlock remotely. I love this because I was worried about getting home from work late and not being able to ensure Ruby stays inside. I can also set a curfew, so she can’t go out whilst it’s dark. The app tells me if Ruby is inside or out, when she leaves and returns and even if she has just sat and had a look outside.

Part of the family

Why did I feel anxious about my kitten being left alone or going outside? 

For many of us, pets are seen and treated as part of the family. A kitten especially is vulnerable: it has left the safety of its mother and relies on its new owner for protection. Perhaps because kittens are so small and delicate looking, we instantly feel they are vulnerable to external dangers when left to their own defences in our homes, even if only in one room. By the time a kitten is ready to go outside, we have spent several months raising and bonding with them as part of our families. This is a huge step because the kitten is going into the world without its owner to prevent them getting into danger. 

I think that a large part of the anxiety many pet owners feel when they leave their pet, or let them outside without knowing exactly where they are, is a fear of the unknown. With the addition of cameras and tracking devices, we can take away the unknown element, making the whole prospect much less anxiety provoking. 

Shaping our lives?

After a few weeks of use, I can confidently say that all the methods I have employed to overcome my cat ownership anxiety have helped. I have several friends who own cats and don’t let them out, purely because they are anxious about it. In modern times, with so many vehicles on the roads, it’s understandable that many people feel more anxious about their pet’s safety than they may have in the past. I am glad I tried to get past this and Ruby can go on lots of cat adventures, whilst I still enjoy the benefits of having her around. Ironically, it turns out that Ruby doesn’t like being outside and would much rather stay indoors. 

Alongside their impact on mental health, there are many other roles pets can have in human psychology. For many children, their first pet encompasses a range of developmental milestones: learning to deal with death, social responsibility and nurturing behaviours. As a researcher into the role of early childhood experiences in the development of high order functions, I usually explore negative experiences such as trauma and aggression. However, knowing the significant impact pets can have on mental health, I wonder what role something seemingly as insignificant as owning a pet in our early years can have on the decisions and actions we take in adulthood. 

-       Dr Stacey A. Bedwell, Lecturer in Psychology at Birmingham City University. [email protected]

-       Find much more from Stacey, including on animals in psychology, in our archive.

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