Our cats are important in our lives. I’ve made no secrets about how my own cats have kept me healthy through stressful times and even saved my life, more than once.
But it wasn’t until recently that physicians and mental health professionals began to realize the importance of pets in their patients’ lives. A lot of that realization has come because of the efforts of the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute, or HABRI.
The Saturday morning keynote speaker at the BlogPaws 2014 conference was Dr. Kate Hodgson from HABRI, whose mission is to support research, education, and other charitable activities that validate the positive impact the human-animal bond can have on the integrated health of families and communities.
Because pets really are part of families — defined as groups of beings in intimate connection — HABRI strives to educate medical professionals on the importance of the human-animal bond for the health of their patients.
HABRI asked a group of these professionals to add just one simple question when they take their patients’ histories:
"Do you have a pet at home?"
What the doctors and nurses found was that asking that question opened doors into their patients’ lives that no other medical history question could.
One story Hodgson shared was from a doctor whose patient, when asked that question, learned about a number of stresses in his patient’s life, including children struggling with substance abuse issues, financial stresses, and an aging parent in increasing need of care. Armed with the knowledge of the stresses in his patient’s life, he was able to help his patient learn some stress management and healthy lifestyle tools, including taking his dog for a long walk every day.
Pet ownership can increase exercise, lessen the impact of chronic disease, strengthen community, and even motivate pet caretakers to quit smoking (or at least quit smoking inside their homes).
Mental health professionals, too, can benefit from asking this question. I can tell you from personal experience that when I’ve been asked whether I have pets and I talk about my cats, and particularly if the counselor responds that he or she also has pets, it makes me feel safer and allows me to open up more about my feelings and needs.
When a therapist understands the depth of the bond between humans and their animal companions, it also allows him or her to understand how profoundly the loss of a pet can shake their clients’ foundations. It meant the world to me to have a counselor who listened with compassion and empathy when I cried through multiple sessions as I dealt with my grief from the death of two cats in less than a year. I didn’t feel as though anyone else in my life understood the depth of the loss I felt, and if it hadn’t been for her, I’d probably still be frozen in a state of grief and depression.
HABRI has coined a word for the positive benefits to human health from interacting with animals: zooeyia. The term comes from the Greek root words for animal (zoion) and health (Hygeia was the ancient Greek goddess of health, the same source as "hygiene"). It’s meant to be the opposite of zoonoses, illnesses that can be contracted from animals.
So, what’s the main takeaway here? If you’re a medical or mental health professional, please make a point of asking your patients if they have pets. You’ll be amazed at the doors it could open for you to help them live their best lives.
Have you ever talked to a medical or mental health professional about your cats? What brought it up? Tell us your story in the comments.
Read stories of rescue and love on Catster:
About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.