Having a dog is a natural conversation starter either at a dog run or just if you’re out walking and this helps form friendships and can ease loneliness by providing conversation and mutual interests like our dogs. My dad is 93 and he meets people because he has a dog! And then of course there is the exercise of walking your dog which is also good for mental health.
Pets have always been more than just companions; they play a pivotal role in enhancing our mental well-being. From the unconditional love of a dog to the calming presence of a cat, pets have a unique way of alleviating stress, anxiety, and loneliness. But how do we truly harness the therapeutic potential of our furry, feathered, or scaled friends? How can they aid in promoting mindfulness, reducing depression, or even enhancing social interactions? In this interview series, we are talking to veterinarians, psychologists, therapists, pet trainers, and other experts who can shed light on how to maximize the mental health benefits of having a pet. As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing feline behaviorist, Stephen Quandt.
Stephen Quandt is the founder of Stephen Quandt Feline Behavior Associates, LLC, and is a Feline Training and Behavior Specialist certified through the Animal Behavior Institute (ABI). He is a professional cat behaviorist with over 20 years of experience working with cats in private consultations, animal shelters and in the field. A background of nationwide rescue work with the ASPCA greatly enriched his empathy with communities of cat lovers in need of help. His current work with the Animal Care Centers of NYC advances that compassionate connection. See more about Stephen at www.catbehaviorhelp.com and @catbehaviorhelp across all socials.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
Before I discuss my childhood (yikes, haha) I should mention that after college I trained for and received an MFA in theatrical lighting design and I worked in that field where I met my future husband Thom, and in time we became cat lovers. I jokingly refer to myself as a “crazy cat lady.”
And while I worked mostly as a freelance designer, I also volunteered with animal rescue orgs. While volunteering with the ASPCA in 2011 they asked me to go to the site of the Joplin, MO, tornado to assist with animal rescue, and it was there that I really learned what it meant to relieve suffering in another creature, and it changed me forever. It was this tragedy that caused me to slowly change careers, moving from a freelance designer to a freelance animal welfare worker. Right after Joplin the ASPCA gave me a contract to be a professional responder and I started going around the country assisting with natural disasters and criminal cruelty cases which I alternated with designing theatre productions, a wild combination! Over time I did less and less theatre work until 2019 when I joined the Animal Care Centers of NYC (nycacc.org) full time in feline behavior, and where I still work part time while I grow my private business as a certified feline behavior and training specialist. In this capacity I do private behavior consulting for people with cat behavior problems. I also consult with companies and give public webinars on cat behavior.
I grew up with a dog I loved deeply, a corgi that at age four I named “Corgi” and as an only child she was also like a sibling but who I lost to illness when I was about 17 during the ‘70’s. And during this time, I was growing up as a gay teen who was unable to imagine a romantic future for myself since there were really no gay role models to look up to, and no hopeful or kind representations of gay people in film, TV or advertising. So, in my mind, my future as best as I can describe it was really a gray, amorphous blob. A big nothing. And it was only recently that I figured out with the help of a trauma therapist that what I do with animals, specifically cats, is work to find them their futures through all the work I do in rescue, adoptions and feline behavior. And if there is a bad outcome, it’s very hard on me, and it feels like I have failed us both and I think that goes back to my childhood and what I saw as an empty future.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have a lot of stories! But one that is particularly meaningful happened in 2019 when I went to work with the dogs that live around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine and who descended from the pet dogs left behind after the accident of 1986. I had just started at the Animal Care Centers of NYC, and they gave me permission to leave for two weeks and asked that I document what I saw and share it with the org upon my return. And what I saw were dogs, living, breeding and struggling to survive around the plant, and we provided feeding stations, medical care and of course we spayed and neutered them to stop the breeding process. And I met people, squatters, who live in the abandoned town of Chernobyl City, and who have sacrificed so much. One of them, an older man, was one of the people who fought the fire in the core of the reactor at the time of the accident. On my last day there, speaking through a translator who is now a friend of mine, he told me a story and gave me a gift that made me cry in the middle of this radioactive forest. We have so much, they have so little, or so it appears to us, and all we did was try to make a difference. Ultimately it was a story of hope and resilience. There is a three minute interview with me about it on storycorps.org’s website, which was featured this past summer on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, by Irene Pepperberg. This is an astonishing book that changed animal science and that helped me learn more about how animals fit into our world by looking at who they really are. This isn’t about anthropomorphising, it’s about seeing their reality and how that impacts our responsibility to them and the natural world.
A quick example from the book (I’m paraphrasing): Irene would do these tests with Alex where she would show him colored shapes like red triangles, red squares, blue circles and blue triangles, and so on. And she would ask him, “Alex, how many blue squares are there?” And to do this he would have to make two different calculations, one of color and the other of shape and combine them to create the correct answer. And he always got it right, until one day a guest came over and she asked Alex to do the test in front of her friend. And each time she asked him the question he got it wrong saying “two” or “four” when the correct answer was really “three.” Finally, she took him away and put him in his room for a time out, and as she was closing the door he said in a loud voice, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry it was three!”. He apologized for lying because he didn’t like performing in front of company. So not only could he do a complex calculation, but he could lie about the answer and apologize afterward! I found this to be astonishing.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Can you share a personal story about how a pet has helped you or someone you know to improve mental wellness?
As someone who works in animal welfare, I see how important our animal companions are to our lives. And when the bond between our pets and ourselves is damaged or broken I try to repair that damage and that work is both a joy and a burden. I take a lot on my shoulders, but nothing is more satisfying than helping a family with their cat. The worry we feel when things aren’t going well is as bad as the joy is great when our pet is happy and healthy. I have a good friend who is very connected to her dog and I think this dog has immeasurably helped her outlook on life, and the two of them are deeply bonded. My dad, after losing my mom adopted a dog named Stormy, and they love each other beyond measure and I know he is so much happier for having Stormy’s companionship. I also have a friend who has a service dog for mobility issues and she tells me that when he does things for her physically she feels more confident and less anxious about functioning in society. And his presence helps people talk to her instead of looking away when they see her in a wheelchair.
We have a blind-from-birth girl named Jenny (named after our vet at the time) who was found as a kitten with her siblings on the Pelham Parkway in the Bronx 12 years ago. Besides changing our lives in immeasurable ways, she also unwittingly helped a young couple with their lives. I was working in adoptions at the time at the ASPCA and this couple came in saying they wanted to adopt a bonded pair of cats. We had several pairs on that day and I took them around showing each to them, but none were quite right. I told them that there was one last pair to see and I led them to these last two bonded cats. As I opened the kennel door I explained that both cats were blind, one from birth and the other from a surgical procedure. As they reached in to pet these two cats, recently surrendered by a man who was having life problems, I told them that I had a blind cat as well. And for the next 20 minutes or so I explained all the wonderful and normal things about having a blind cat while this couple pet and loved on this pair. And when they were done, the woman turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, “We’ll take them both.” Best adoption I ever did thanks to Jenny, and thanks to two loving people who were able to see past something that really wasn’t there, a barrier that was really only a difference.
While human interaction is essential for emotional well-being, in what ways do interactions with pets offer unique benefits that human relationships might not provide?
Pets don’t judge us, they don’t argue or talk back. They listen to everything we say. Many offer unconditional love. Many accept lengthy, almost unlimited touching, and petting. We love petting them, and it feels particularly good to pet our animals, so much so that we even call them “pets”. They sit with us, and even on us! We play with them in ways we don’t typically play with other people. And dogs give us exercise several times a day, every day. For me, the unique benefit comes from how pure the relationships between human and animal can be.
Can you explain how this works? How do pets, particularly common ones like dogs and cats, biologically and psychologically help to alleviate human stress levels and anxieties?
I cannot explain the biology of it but study after study has shown that having companion animals, even fish, help with stress, anxiety, blood pressure, reductions in hospital visits, the list goes on. Literally as I’m writing this my husband starts arguing with me over something that is happening in politics, but we don’t have that argument with our cats! For me, psychologically, the emotion of loving our cats in this pure way lowers anxiety. And the physical act of petting them does this as well. What do you need to do to get your cat to purr? Figure that out and then make them purr! They love it and the sound is soothing to the human heart. There are strong studies that show that the frequency of purring helps promote bone growth after an injury.
In the backdrop of global events like pandemics or natural disasters, how have you seen pets playing a role in alleviating anxiety and providing comfort? Can you share some instances where pets have been integrated into therapeutic practices? How do they complement traditional therapeutic techniques?
My work doesn’t directly put me in touch with people who have had therapeutic encounters with dogs or cats but I know that my own cats have given me much therapeutic support during times of stress. Having my cats sit on me, ask for petting or play gets me out of my own head and is very calming and at times meditative. But working on various natural disaster cases has put me in contact with people who are looking for their missing pets, and helping to reunite them is hugely therapeutic for them. In my first case, the Joplin tornado, we were trapping cats every night and bringing them to our temporary shelter where eventually we had over 400 cats in total. One day a man came in to look for his missing cat but he explained that his cat would never go in a trap. He walked down row after row of cats, and literally when he got to the last cat, in the last row, he found his missing friend. And I know that the work that I do is often very therapeutic for me. I’ve had so many people tell me, “Thank you for the work that you do.” but I want to say to them, “No, thank you, I’m actually quite lucky to be doing this work.”
Not all pets are dogs or cats. From birds to fish to reptiles, how can individuals choose the right pet that aligns with their mental health needs?
We should look at their need for companionship and balance their need for interactivity and activity. With fish, just being able to care for them and admire them (for their beauty, grace, etc) may be enough. Some people really respond to being able to win over companion animals, to win their love. When a cat chooses you, it’s a powerful experience. So for people who really enjoy being “chosen” by their animals, cats may be a better choice since they are less likely to immediately signal their love, although this varies by cat and by dog as well. For people who want more demonstrative affection, dogs may be a better choice, but again it depends on the specific animal.
How does the act of taking care of a pet — feeding, grooming, exercising — contribute to an individual’s sense of purpose and mental well-being?
Being responsible for another being increases our self-worth and appreciation of life. Keeping them happy makes us happy. It feels good to watch one’s pet eat! The act of grooming, the repetitiveness of it can be meditative, and watching our companion preen and stretch and obviously enjoy the grooming is satisfying and deepens the bond between us and them. Happiness is reciprocal. When we see our companion animal happy, it bounces back on us and makes us happier. And I’m sure that goes both directions because our animals read us as well.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. From your experience or research, what are your “Five Ways To Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet?” Can you please share a story or example for each?
1 . Get a pet if you don’t have one now. Millions of people don’t have pets and they are missing the benefits. If you go to a breeder, consider doing a “carbon offset”. If you buy an animal then make a donation to an animal shelter or mental health organization. Get a pet for your child. Those memories will last them a lifetime. Decades later I still think about my first dog with love. We had a ritual when I came home from school every day, I would take her out into the yard and we would play. As I mentioned earlier, she was a corgi whom I named Corgi and corgis herd farm animals so I would toss this large ball for her and she would herd it around the yard. And you don’t have to get a dog or a cat. Rabbits make great pets, helpful if you have allergies to other species and they can even be litter box trained. Birds make great companions and many are very smart, see “Alex and Me” discussed above. Even having fish has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, reduce blood pressure and improve mood and mental stability.
2 . Volunteer at or donate to an animal shelter or rescue group. Many volunteers report that focusing on one animal at a time gets them out of their head and mentally removes them from their “day job”. I know I experienced this when I started volunteering at a cat rescue group. After we adopted our first two cats, Simon and Felix, I randomly walked into a Petco one day looking for cat toys and I saw this woman named Dororthy sitting in front of cat kennels and she was asking for donations. I started talking to her and asked if they needed volunteers and she said, “Yes we do.” and so I signed up. This was in 2002 and I never would have predicted that this single act would change my life forever because ultimately it brought me into a career with cats, my favorite creatures.
3 . Maximize the mental health benefits of having a pet by having more than one! Or consider adopting an adult pet. Kittens and puppies don’t know from anything, but an adult cat or dog knows a broader range of experiences, and I believe they know when their ship has come in, and seeing that gratitude in them will change you. When we went to adopt a “single kitten” back in 1999 on a Sunday in September the shelter we went to was busy and there were no single kittens left except a very shy one. And we had walked past all the adult cats, something that I still think about to this day and witness every day at my shelter. But then we saw a pair of kittens, one black kitten (who we later named Felix) and one tuxedo (who became Simon) and we thought, “Hey, what about two kittens?” We never looked back, and we have always had at least 2 cats ever since. It’s one for each lap, they get the company of their own species, the antics between them can be hysterical, and you get to appreciate different personalities. And it’s really not more work, sometimes it’s actually less because they also have each other for company. Pro tip: if you think you’re going to want two cats eventually, it’s better to bring home two bonded cats from day one, rather than do an introduction later. Probably the number one reason people hire me is to help with cat-on-cat aggression.
4 . Don’t automatically ignore or pass by a special needs animal. You will likely discover that they aren’t actually “special needs”, just different and those differences can teach you a great deal about life, coping and resilience. Our blind girl Jenny never ceases to teach us about what it means to have sight without vision, to have spatial memory and to perform spatial mapping. Just this past summer we took Jenny and her stepsister Cricket to a cottage on the Maine coast that they hadn’t been to in six years and once inside Jenny explored it like a pro navigating the entire cottage with ease. Within an hour she had climbed straight up the vertical ladder that goes to a loft bed because she did this six years ago and obviously remembered doing it.
5 . Having a dog is a natural conversation starter either at a dog run or just if you’re out walking and this helps form friendships and can ease loneliness by providing conversation and mutual interests like our dogs. My dad is 93 and he meets people because he has a dog! And then of course there is the exercise of walking your dog which is also good for mental health.
The loss of a pet can be deeply traumatic. How can individuals navigate this grief, and how does it compare to other forms of loss in terms of mental health impact?
Having to say goodbye is one of the hardest things we ever have to do. It is not always easy to get this right, to know when it’s time. Waiting too long to give the final gift of humane euthanasia can burden us for a long time and can damage the grieving process by complicating it with guilt. Avoid this guilt by having honest conversations with yourself, your vet and with your friend who looks to you for relief. This is the best way to help you transition through grief and sparing your friend unneeded suffering is the most important thing you can do for them at this moment in their lives.
I often tell people that “worry” or “worrying” is not a process. Worry just sits there and hurts continuously but grief is a process that we move through. I once had a friend call me because her cat had gotten a fatal illness that had no cure, and she said she had found a vet who had “discovered” a rare combination of vitamins that could “cure” her cat and of course would cost thousands of dollars. I explained that this “vet” was a crook, he was scamming her, but she wouldn’t listen to me insisting that her cat could be saved. I explained in an increasingly intense tone of voice that she was going to prolong the suffering of her cat whom she loved so much and that she (the cat) was going to die anyway. I confess to sounding unkind to her, but in the moment I was more concerned for her cat. I finally asked her why she had called me if she was so insistent on getting her cat this “cure”. And crying she said, “I called you so you would convince me to put her to sleep.” And that is what she did.
Our relationship with pets is as close to a pure relationship as we can have. Even though it starts the process of grieving, knowing that the time has come is for me the most important part of this journey because it allows us to know, in our hearts, that we are doing the right thing at the right time. When my best friend Simon had come to the end of his journey we hospitalized him with the hope that they could stabilize him well enough that we could bring him home for in-home euthanasia in the coming days. That night he actually seemed ok, even though we knew he wasn’t. We agreed that Thom would go to Albany the next day as planned for a day-long work trip and that he would come back in the afternoon if something changed.
The next morning I went to see Simon and he was gazing to that far away place and I knew the time had come, and I turned to the vet and I said with tears in my eyes, “I can’t bring him home, can I?” And he said, “No, I’m sorry.” So I had to call Thom on the train crying, and tell him that we couldn’t wait, and that I was so sorry. Then I gave Simon that final gift, holding him on my lap as the vet administered the drugs as tears fell from my eyes drop by drop upon him until he was gone. Tears that still spring forth today. Tears that help me to miss him still. Then I wrapped him in a beautiful Indian fabric and with the hospital’s permission, I carried him to the freezer, and set his body inside it for cremation later. I still miss him, and it’s been ten years. But with loss there can be new life, and one of the best ways to ease the grief, when one is ready, is to bring a new companion animal into your life. As I write this thinking about Simon and Felix, Cricket and Jenny are sleeping near each other just feet from me. But just now Jenny, hearing me say something, opens an “unseeing eye” and actually “looks” in my direction, jumps off the sofa and climbs up on the other one where I am, and lays on my outstretched legs and begins to preen herself.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of peace to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
Speaking realistically, I would expand my influence as far as possible to teach people about cat behavior and the humane treatment of animals in order to help people and their animals live happier lives. The public sector has taken this on and is doing about as much as it can. I honestly believe that the next step in animal welfare needs to come from the private sector, from private companies in pet care partnering with pet parents by offering actual services. There is precedent for this, hospitals used to all be public, now there are many private hospitals. If your dog or cat has a behavior problem do you think of your pet’s food manufacturer as a go to source for help? Absolutely not. But what if you did? You thought of them because they were actually there for you. And what sort of customer loyalty might that inspire?
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
Poul Weihrauch, CEO of Mars, Inc., including Mars Petcare. Why? My approach to marketing speaks directly to pet parents’ desire to make a difference in the lives of pets and I believe there is a pet food company out there that aligns to this same tactic.
Also, John Krasinksi to whom I adopted out 2 kittens just after he auditioned for a new show called “The Office” back in about 2005. Why meet with him? Besides catching up, I’d like to see if he would like to partner with me on advancing animal welfare.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My website, https://catbehaviorhelp.com has access to everything I do, services I provide, publications I’m quoted in, webinars I give, case studies, and contact info. I’m also on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-quandt-cftbs-5792081a8/ and I’m on instagram and Facebook @catbehaviorhelp. Jenny (and her current and former cat friends) has her own presence on both of those platforms @JennyTheBlindCat. I’m currently writing (and Thom is illustrating) a children’s book on cat behavior called Happy Comes Home that not only teaches about cat behavior but shows how all of us can make a difference in an animal’s life. We hope to have it published by this spring. Look for it on Amazon and my website.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com.