Chronic Illness & Pets: The Healing Power of Hope

Did you know that spending time around pets can reduce pain and improve mood? But more than that – through their affection and antics – they give us a sense of optimism and hope for the day ahead. The slow-paced life that comes with chronic illness means we can give them companionship and endless cuddles. It’s a perfect match!

Chronic illness and pets

Two days ago this cutie came to live with us and we couldn’t be more excited. Her name is Sarah and she’s an affectionate, but shy, two-year-old grey tabby. Her arrival felt like a ray of sunshine on a grey day.


Pets enrich our lives and the benefits can be measured in health improvements: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets… can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness. They can also increase opportunities for getting exercise and engaging in outdoor activities, as well as provide more opportunities for socializing with others” (Confronting Chronic Pain). In particular, contact with animals been found to benefit people living with chronic pain. For example, visits with therapy dogs at a pain management clinic was found to reduce pain and emotional distress in patients, as well as improve the emotional well-being of friends and family members who were there with them (Confronting Chronic Pain). Pets help reduce pain and stress, as well as giving their humans companionship, and a sense of purpose.


Four months ago we had to put our lovely 18-year-old cat Lily to sleep. She was originally my husband’s cat and we all moved in together about five years ago. Lily with fiercely loyal and affectionate. Initially she didn’t think much of me because I took up too much of my husband’s attention. Her modus operandi was nonviolent resistance – she never scratched a human being in her life. Instead, Lily showed her opinion of me by scratching my chair and attempting to get my husband’s attention if she felt he had not paid her due deference. But since I was her daytime companion, the giver of treats and nearest available warm lap, we became friends and, eventually, family . Lily’s favourite time was when the gang was all together in the evening, sitting together – and preferably paying attention to her. She was always there for me on the hardest days when I felt unwell, and it meant a lot to me that I was able to be there for her in her golden years. Saying goodbye to her has been a big loss and has made getting through my health challenges that much harder.

We knew that if we waited to ‘get over’ losing Lily to adopt another, we would probably wait forever. Enough time has passed that we felt ready to welcome a new, and different feline into our lives. Sarah has had a difficult two years of life. She was a stray who comes from a high-kill shelter and didn’t have much contact with people, until a foster family took her in. They provided her with a good home, but apparently the presence of multiple cats and kids was a little overwhelming for this skittish girl.

They think she will thrive in a peaceful and quiet environment. That pretty much describes life at home with me and my husband. Living with a chronic illness necessitates a slow pace of life. Sleep in; breakfast, coffee and the news; stretch and meditate; spend the afternoon writing and on the computer, nap breaks in between; go for a walk when my husband comes from work; and spend the evening together catching up on our favourite shows. Sarah will have lots of company, plenty of time for play sessions, and no one will interrupt her cat naps. I will gain companionship, the endless amusement that cats can provide (like watching an endless playlist of cat videos) and the enjoyment of taking care of another (something other than my health).

As a person with chronic illness, living in a society obsessed with productivity, I often feel like a round peg in a square hole. My goals include learning to savour the small moments, staying present more of the time, and learning to take more time off and push myself less. The goals of my friends include career success, home-ownership and completing their first triathlon next year. For them life is busy busy busy and for me it’s the opposite. There’s something wonderful about the fact that Sarah will fit into my slow-paced lifestyle like a round peg in a round hole. Once she gets used to us, my hope is that living here will be safe and healing for her. I hope she will be sleeping on our clean laundry, getting into trouble and generally bossing us around in no time.

Hope. It’s a powerful force. When you live with a health condition that’s lifelong, the chronic part can blunt the hope part. It’s easy to become habitually cautious about anything new – after losing many of my abilities, I have a lot of self-doubt about what I’m capable of. When we saw Sarah’s picture and read her story online, I was torn between hoping we could provide her with the right home and the creeping doubt of trying anything new that people who live with chronic illness develop over time. I worried about the differences between looking after a geriatric cat you know well and an energetic two-year-old cat you’ve just met. Writing the animal rescue coordinator to start the adoption process was a spontaneous act of hope. Of course, there are things that I reasonably should not attempt to do because they will leave me feeling awful, such as working full time or attempting a triathlon. But that there are other things that I reasonably could attempt to do, but a lack of spontaneity – of joie de vivre – and, yes, of hope –held me back. I’m glad I didn’t listen to the voice of doubt.

For the moment, Sarah has primarily taken up residence living under the futon. Last night she came out for the first time while we were awake, walked around, and lay down to survey us. It was an exciting moment, and the first step she took in trusting us. Eventually she will be part of our family and, besides all of the health benefits of adopting her, I think it’s the healing power of hope that pets like Sarah offer us most.

*Update* Sarah has come out of her shell in the last few weeks and it turns out she has a big personality. She meows to demand pets but has a royal protocol for how to be petted – first a chin scratch, then a head pat and finally a back scratch. She meows to scold us if we scare her (walking quickly, reaching down towards her, picking up a big object). She trained us to play her favorite (and only) game – tossing kibbles for her to chase. Sarah gets down in an adorable crouch, super excited for the next kibble. She sleeps with reckless abandon in a way I can only dream of doing.

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3 thoughts on “Chronic Illness & Pets: The Healing Power of Hope

  1. Ellen says:

    So pleased you adopted Sarah. This Summer I adopted a rescue kitten, and like you, had many doubts as to whether I could look after him. The first few months were tricky, as he was scared and poorly, but now he’s eventually settled, he is a joyful addition to my life. I also take inspiration from the way cats are TOTALLY relaxed when they sleep, in complete ‘rest and digest’ mode!

    • Katarina Zulak says:

      So glad that your little guy has settled in and is enjoying all the peaceful cat naps he wants 🙂 so far Sarah is gradually making herself at home although she still has lots of skittish moments. It’s a process but a very worthwhile one!

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