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Why “crazy cat ladies” are healthier than you may think

Owning a cat can help reduce loneliness and depression, and imbue you with positive feelings of responsibility and companionship. Far from a sign of ‘craziness’, keeping a cat at home is more likely to signal an improvement in mental health.

Words by Erica Crompton and photography by Camilla Greenwell

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Photograph of an open laptop within a domestic scene. Most of the image is taken up with the screen, with part of the keyboard and trackpad visible. On the screen is a video call showing a woman standing in her living room, holding a cat in her arms, both are looking to camera. In the bottom right corner of the screen the photographer can be seen in a small floating window, camera to her eye, in the process of taking the picture.
Sarah with Beckett, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

The first time Nutan scooped her cat, Chica, into her arms, she realised she’d reached a stage in her life where she’d become responsible.

In the past, medical researchers thought that owning a cat could actually cause schizophrenia. This is because cat faeces can carry a microorganism called Toxoplasma gondii, which infects a large minority of humans without them knowing it or showing any symptoms. Studies on rodents infected with T. gondii show it affects behaviour, hence the connection between the same infection and schizophrenia in humans.

Photograph of an open laptop within a domestic scene. Most of the image is taken up with the screen, with part of the keyboard and trackpad visible. On the screen is a video call showing a woman sitting with a cat in her arms. In the bottom right corner of the screen the photographer can be seen in a small floating window, camera to her eye, in the process of taking the picture.
Rianna with Okoye, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Rianna with her cat, Okoye.

Nutan has herself been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but now new research rejects the schizophrenia link. Instead there’s a growing body of literature that says owning a cat can have a positive effect on your mental health. Not only can a pet stave off loneliness, but also lower blood pressure and bring affection back into your life.

Nutan, a self-proclaimed “Londoner exiled in Glasgow”, supports this growing body of evidence and says: “I’ve never had a child in my life and I hear people say it comes to a stage where if you can look after a pet and give it a loving home, then you could bring a child into the world.

“The first time I held Chica, my cat, she was that barometer. I was a bachelorette living alone and managing a severe mental illness, and my sister gave Chica to me as a present after one of quite a few hospital stays. I named my kitty Chica after a dear friend and she brought me a lot of relief.”

Photograph of an open laptop within a domestic scene. Most of the image is taken up with the screen, with part of the keyboard and trackpad visible. On the screen is a video call showing a woman standing in a kitchen setting, next to a fridge freezer. She is looking up to the top of the fridge where a black cat is standing looking towards the camera. In the bottom right corner of the screen the photographer can be seen in a small floating window, camera to her eye, in the process of taking the picture.
Holly with Phaedra, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Holly with Phaedra.

The friend she refers to is me, because she has always called me ‘Chica’. But despite this, Nutan says, “I didn’t humanise her. If a cat came in with a dead mouse I’d say bravo! I love Chica’s wild instincts and her mysterious ways.”

The benefits of being responsible

Nutan believes Chica is good for her in a number of ways, not just because the frequency of her purring – on a similar frequency to ‘Om’, the Hindu mantra Nutan grew up with – lowers Nutan’s heart rate.

“In terms of my mental health, being a cat owner gives me another persona to the different diagnoses psychiatrists label me with. I own a cat and it’s become a part of my identity. It feels like the psychiatric diagnoses can be left behind. But Chica gives me responsibility too. I’ve got a degree, but I’ve never been a manager of a department because I’ve been in and out of hospital. The idea of being a cat owner and having the responsibility that brings is an honour,” says Nutan.

Photograph of an open laptop within a domestic scene. Most of the image is taken up with the screen, with part of the keyboard and trackpad visible. On the screen is a video call showing a woman in a pink dress sitting on an armchair with a black cat sitting beside her. In the bottom right corner of the screen the photographer can be seen in a small floating window, camera to her eye, in the process of taking the picture.
Robyn with Toulouse, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Robyn with Toulouse.

Nutan is not alone in feeling that the responsibility of owning a cat is a force for good when it comes to managing not just a severe mental illness but also life in general. Alice Evans is a PhD researcher at Chelsea College of Art and says: “The responsibility of looking after Jeff, my cat, benefits me because I have another creature to think about when I get low. He gives great cuddles when I'm unwell. He also chases mice so I don't have to worry about that at my house.”

Alice adds that: “Jeff helps me with my mental health by making me laugh when he does silly things. He is also good company if I feel lonely.”

My cats have proved valuable in combating the feelings of loneliness and isolation mental illness brings.

Photograph of an open laptop within a domestic scene. Most of the image is taken up with the screen, with part of the keyboard and trackpad visible. On the screen is a video call showing a woman sitting on her sofa with a cat either side of her. In the bottom right corner of the screen the photographer can be seen in a small  floating window, camera to her eye, in the process of taking a picture.
Rosalind with her cats, Anthea and Augustus, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Rosalind with Anthea and Augustus.

Indeed, the inspiration for this article came after I adopted two large tomcats myself, from Cats Protection – tabbies Caspar and Winter. Living alone at 38, I find that my cats have proved valuable in combating the feelings of loneliness and isolation mental illness brings.

A very practical example of this is when I’ve not left the house for two days but Caspar is always paws-to-the-ready to make sure I am up at dawn to feed him. There have been tough days with my grandmother passing recently, and both Caspar and Winter have been once again ready with cuddles and affection. They have softened life’s blows and I think life is a lot better, and happier, with them by my side.

Photograph of an open laptop within a domestic scene. Most of the image is taken up with the screen, with part of the keyboard and trackpad visible. On the screen is a video call showing a woman standing against a white wall looking down at a cat she is holding in her arms. In the bottom right corner of the screen the photographer can be seen in a small floating window, camera to her eye, in the process of taking the picture.
George with Molly, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

George with Molly.

Stephanie Allen is a peer researcher from Glasgow, and, like Nutan, Alice and myself, is managing a mental illness. She says that having a cat motivates her to continue going to work to keep them in the popular cat treat ‘Dreamies’ and catnip. She says: “Cats are pure comedy – my partner and I bond over their daft escapades. Your cat does not care if peer review were harsh about your paper; they feel the same about you anyway, the person who should feed them on command.”

Debunking the “crazy cat lady” cliché

But why do we have the “crazy cat lady” stereotype but no “crazy cat gentlemen”? 

Nutan feels it’s a matter of historical inequality. Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and agrees that there is possibly a lingering gender stereotype connecting the historical (usually female) ‘witch’ with cats. She has also examined out-of-control pet owning: hoarding animals. Tang says that there could be some gender leaning, though it’s never completely simple.

 

Photograph of an open laptop within a domestic scene. Most of the image is taken up with the screen, with part of the keyboard and trackpad visible. On the screen is a video call showing a woman sitting on a sofa with a cat on her lap. In the bottom right corner of the screen the photographer can be seen in a small floating window, camera to her eye, in the process of taking the picture.
Jean with Molly, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Jean with Molly.

“Research conducted by PUCRS [Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul], Brazil into hoarding behaviours shows that more women than men are likely to hoard animals. However, the findings within what has been done are of interest. Of the female animal hoarders, Ferreira et al notes that more were also classed as “elderly” and “weren’t married”. With hoarding classified as a mental illness, “crazy cat lady” unfortunately becomes a thoughtless and unhelpful moniker.  

“It is also possible that more women are instinctively moved to ‘protect’ or form emotional bonds, and if these are lacking in their lives, an animal can be a very positive alternative.”

Photograph of an open laptop within a domestic scene. Most of the image is taken up with the screen, with part of the keyboard and trackpad visible. On the screen is a video call showing a man sitting in a bedroom on a rocking horse, holding a ginger and white cat in his arms. In the bottom right corner of the screen the photographer can be seen in a small floating window, camera to her eye, in the process of taking the picture.
Ruben with Arthur, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Ruben with Arthur.

Animal hoarders are, of course, extreme examples of a certain kind of mental illness. This should not detract from the fact that keeping just one or two cats is a positive and therapeutic experience for many. Stephanie, Nutan and Alice are three case studies that back up the growing research showing that our furry friends help combat loneliness and depression. On top of that they also motivate, entertain and bless us with responsibility.  

While the verdict is out on whether women enjoy feline companions more than men, it’s so good to know that these lovable creatures are helping people stay mentally healthy, happier… and far from crazy!

About the contributors

Photograph of Erica Crompton

Erica Crompton

Author
ericacrompton.com

Erica is a freelance writer with degrees in journalism and fine art. In March 2020 she published her first book, written with Professor Stephen Lawrie, ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Sanity’, a self-help guide for people with psychosis. As well as writing, she delivers keynotes on living with psychosis around the UK.

Photograph of Camilla Greenwell

Camilla Greenwell

Photographer

Camilla Greenwell is a photographer specialising in dance, performance and portraiture. She regularly works with Sadler’s Wells, Barbican, Candoco, Rambert, The Place, the Guardian, the British Red Cross, Art on the Underground and Wellcome Collection.