There’s extensive evidence that dogs and cats, our companion animals, are good for our physical and psychological health. See “Having a dog can prolong your life”.
In fact, just stroking our companion animal calms us and lowers our blood pressure. But it turns out the benefits are mutual — being cuddled by us helps keep our pets healthy!
In 2015, two professors at the University of Queensland, Australia — Nadine Gourkow and Clive J.C. Phillips — published the results of a study they conducted on the effects that human interaction of petting, playing and grooming had on the health of shelter cats.
Their study was published as “Effect of interactions with humans on behaviour, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease of shelter cats rated as contented on arrival,” in the journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 121:3-4 (October 2015), pp. 288-296.
(1) The study’s subjects were 139 cats who had been rated as “anxious” upon admission to an animal shelter. The cats were divided into an Experimental or Control Group:
- Cats in the Experimental Group were “gentled” four times daily for 10 minutes over period of 10 days. “Gentling” is defined as positive human interaction, including petting, playing, and grooming.
- Cats in the Control Group were treated to a human standing in front of the cage with eyes averted for the same 10-day period.
(2) Each cat’s mood or “persistent emotional state” was rated daily during those 10 days as “anxious,” “frustrated” or “content”.
(3) During the course of the experiment, the cats’ health was accessed on:
- Their total secretory immunoglobulin A (S-IgA), quantified from faeces by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Immunoglobulin A (IgA, also referred to as sIgA in its secretory form) is an antibody that plays a crucial role in the immune function of mucous membranes. In other words, S-IgA is a measure of the health of the cats’ immune system because antibodies fight off infection.
- Whether they developed an upper respiratory disease, determined by:
- Swab specimens from the cats for feline herpesvirus type 1 or FHV (a virus that is one of the most common causes of upper respiratory infections), feline calicivirus or FCV (a virus that causes upper respiratory infection), Mycoplasma felis (bacteria that cause a mild upper respiratory infection), Chlamydophila felis (a bacterium that causes inflammation of feline conjunctiva, rhinitis and respiratory problems), and Bordetella bronchiseptica (infectious bronchitis).
- Clinical signs of upper respiratory disease — of eye and/or nasal discharge.
- Gentled cats were more likely to be content and less likely to be anxious or frustrated than Control cats. A sign of anxiety or frustration is shedding: Control cats had a significant increase in shedding, but not the Gentled cats.
- Gentled cats had a healthier immune system — more secretory immunoglobulin A (S-IgA) — compared to Control cats.
- Gentled cats were less likely to develop upper respiratory disease, Control cats being 2.4 times more likely to develop upper respiratory disease (P 0.0001).
The study concluded that sustained interaction with humans, including petting, playing, grooming, can have positive effects on the mood (contentment) and health (better immune system, reduced incidence of upper respiratory diseases) of cats in animal shelters.
In other words, cuddling our cats is good for their health!