The first thing I noticed was his balls. Peering out my back window at the unfamiliar cat lounging in the courtyard, my eyes immediately fell on the two testicles protruding from his backside.

“Ok,” I thought. “Strike one for the ‘this cat is homeless’ column.”

But there was more. He was not matted or unkempt, and when I went out back so I could get a better sense of the cat who just appeared in my courtyard for an early morning lounge, he slowly got up, ambled over with tail up, and rubbed against me like we had always been the best of buds.

“Ok,” I thought. “Well-socialized and clean. Strike one for the ‘this cat has a home’ column.”

But as he rubbed against me I noticed that even if Testicle Man had a home, he did not have a collar, so it wasn’t like I could return him to his rightful home.

I made a quick tally: clean and well-socialized suggested that he probably lived in a home, but the balls meant he really shouldn’t be out and about, able to knock anybody and everybody up. The last thing we need (meaning those who care about animals or work in animal sheltering or rescue) is more kittens born in the streets.

So I did what any reasonable person in a time crunch would do: run to my local pet store, buy a litter box, litter, some toys and food, and lock the cat in my bathroom. The rest of my apartment wasn't easily cat-proofed. Then I called my boyfriend to tell him that I had found a friendly cat with balls and that the cat would spend the next 7ish hours locked in our bathroom while I went off to do something Very Important. I’m pretty sure I didn’t give him time to respond.

I spent the rest of the day doing the Very Important Thing (whatever that was), all the while plagued by what can only be described as acute fretting over the comfort and well-being of Testicle Man in the bathroom. My mind played a reel of “what if” scenarios. I must have imagined at least seven ways that Cat With Balls could kill himself, each more preposterous than the last (but of course, seemingly realistic and inevitable at the time). As the day wore on and I got closer to returning home, I was certain that I’d open the bathroom door and discover mass destruction or a cat who had died in one of the ways I had concocted.

Of course, when I ultimately opened the bathroom door, the cat replicated his earlier moves, slowly getting up from his stretched out position (he was lounging in the tub), ambling over with tail up, and rubbing against my leg. The bathroom was in perfect order. He had eaten a little food. The litter box was unused.

There are many directions we can take this story, and for today’s purpose, I want to focus on the human. Not me exactly, but humans who care for companion animals. My tale is part animal welfare (cats with balls should not roam the streets), and part human welfare. Many of us who care about animals experience varying degrees of stress and anxiety about their welfare.

While a growing body of research suggests that living alongside and interacting with companion animals can benefit human health and well-being, that research is not entirely conclusive. Hal Herzog, Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University, has been exploring the complexity of our relationship with animals for decades. Herzog blogs over at Psychology Today, and he recently reviewed a study that investigated the relationship between people’s social connections and their psychological well-being, including factors like self-esteem, loneliness, isolation, depression, and general life satisfaction. The researchers found that being satisfied in relationships with close friends was positively associated with psychological well-being. On the other hand, Herzog notes, “degree of satisfaction with companion animals was completely unrelated to the measures of well-being – not self-esteem, nor loneliness, nor sense of isolation, nor levels of depression, nor life satisfaction.” The takeaway is that it is an oversimplification to suggest that companion animals are simply “good” for us, and I offer this example of Mr. Balls to add to the expanding conversation.

A woman recently told me a story about how she was sure that her dog had died while she was on vacation. Her reasoning seemed straightforward enough: the man caring for her dog hadn’t thanked her for the Thank You For Caring for My Dog care package that she had sent, and her mind had stumbled on the idea that the reason for his lack of a thank you was that her dog had actually died, and the friend was just waiting until she got home to reveal the Very Bad News. Given the dire nature of the story, you can imagine that this woman might not have had the best vacation. Of course, when she returned home, the dog had not died. The friend had gotten a cold and hadn’t checked his packages in a few days.

A lot of good can come from living with companion animals, but these relationships can also be plagued with blips of anxiety and even result in discord between humans. Working yourself (or someone else) into a tizzy because the cat surely has killed himself by hanging himself from the shower curtain just stinks. Fretting or making up stories of perceived suffering is a part of many of our relationships with companion animals, even though it might not do us much good.

Have you experienced nervousness or anxiety in regards to a companion animal? Preferably those fears that turned out to be wildly unfounded. Of course, if nobody comments, that will just confirm that you are all liars.

Later that night, Cat With Balls was returned to his rightful owner who was walking down the street calling out for him. His name turned out to be Mr. Cocoa.

Featured image: Sebastian in the sink, Flickr Creative Commons-licensed

Works Referenced

John Bradshaw. Greetings! Psychology Today

Hal Herzog. Why Do Human Friends (But Not Pets) Make People Live Longer? Psychology Today

Hawkley & Cacioppo. 2010. How Can I Connect with Thee: Measuring and Comparing Satisfaction in Multiple Relationship Domains. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 66:43-67.