Animal Companionship

2020 has been an undeniably rough year. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to put their lives on hold and has pushed many into long periods of quarantine and self-isolation. Even now, some eight months after the pandemic turned global, we are still facing some of the largest numbers of new cases in the United States.

This stressful time has pushed many down a road of depression and anxiety. For many, these stresses can be soothed not only through human interaction, but through animal companionship.

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that pets can be a source of happiness and joy for their owners, but one may not think of the profound effects that their pets may have on their mental health. Talisa Cantrell, owner of Scruffy’s Cafe, a cat café with an emphasis on mental health, believes that animal companionship may be one of the best ways to deal with poor mental health.

“In trauma, many people may have trouble bonding with people. If you’re a survivor of suicide, abuse, assault … you develop these stumbling blocks to building healthy relationships, developing schedules and keeping up good routines,” Cantrell said. “Animal assisted therapy is incredibly useful for combating these issues and loneliness.”

A former counselor for a non-profit with a focus on trauma, Cantrell spent her years pre-cat café helping people struggling with PTSD and other related issues. In her time leading a sex trafficking diversion program for the city and being a domestic violence counselor, Cantrell noted that she heard countless requests for animal therapy and emotional support animals. 

“I’ve met tons of people that have even refused to go in-patient at recovery units because they feared they would miss their animals too much,” Cantrell said. “I know there is a lot that Knoxville needs to do to address mental health, but it would be ideal to have something where people struggling can go and develop companionship with an animal … having that while combating trauma is a very healthy and great thing.”

Though animals may not be able to provide everything that a human relationship can, they can still provide stability and affection that can be unbelievably helpful to those dealing with mental health issues. Amy Aylmer, a support animal trainer and psychologist in Ireland, noted in a TEDx Talk in 2019 that adopting a cat completely turned her life around.

“Not long after I experienced sexual assault, I began to suffer from PTSD. It brought crippling anxiety, horrendous bouts of depression, panic attacks, isolation … I was just lonely,” Aylmer said. “My life genuinely started to change for the better when I adopted my cat. … She allowed me to step into the role of caregiver. Taking care of [my cat] assured that I was taking better care of myself and left very little room for relapse.”

Experts on mental health seem to almost unanimously agree that animal companionship helps make people happier and even healthier. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements from pet ownership, and 75% of pet owners reported a friend’s or family member’s mental health has improved from pet ownership.

While pet ownership isn’t financially possible for all, places such as Scruffy’s Cafe provide an alternative way to still get animal therapy.

“I’ve seen people struggling with loss, animal and human, [come into Scruffy’s] just to escape the world for a little bit,” Cantrell said. “Having patterned relationships where you rely on the animal and the animal relies on you is so critical to everyday life. I’m really glad to have that set up in Scruffy’s.”

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