How taking care of my cats helped me relearn self-care

A student describes how her two cats help keep her mental health in check and offer emotional support when she struggles to take care of herself.


I’ve grown up with cats my whole life. I always felt connected to their emotional intelligence and self-reliance, but now they serve a new purpose in my life: a reason to take care of myself.

Marshmallow is my nine-year-old mostly white calico cat with a sassy, but social, personality and a tendency to bite anyone who dares to walk past her — except me, of course. She was a stray rescued from the side of a road by a neighbor in the middle of a storm, and I adopted her for my 12th birthday. Midnight is my family’s 14-year-old black cat with the sweetest personality and an obsession with hair ties. We adopted her from a shelter when I was a child and she’s been by my side ever since.

After adopting Marshmallow, my parents put me in charge of cleaning out their litter box every day and feeding my cats at dinnertime. I spent most of my time at home with them, playing with feathered or catnip-filled cat toys and protecting them from the terror of my younger sister who loved to trap them under hampers or chase them in circles. 

While I always cared for them, my cats knew how to care for me too. Marshmallow would curl up in my lap when she knew I was sad and Midnight’s playfulness would make me laugh every day. I was happy, so it was easy to have the motivation to care for myself.

Last year, I left them behind when I moved into my first apartment off-campus with three roommates because I was worried about the amount of responsibility required to take care of them. I felt guilty for abandoning them because we had grown up together, but my physical and emotional well-being became my top priority when I moved into my new apartment.

My parents raised me to be self-reliant — and I am — but change tends to overwhelm me. The loneliness, complete switch in my daily routine and lack of stability that came with moving to college distracted me from my usual self-care, which hindered my physical and mental health. Aside from my insufficient diet and poor hygiene, I had a constant pit of emptiness in my stomach and nothingness in my head — nothing to care for or motivate me to take care of myself.

Ahead of the move to my new apartment, I noticed the decline of my mental health in increasingly common bouts of anxiety-induced nausea. I already knew I was going to struggle to take care of myself, and that was the main reason I didn’t bring my cats with me, other than the additional expenses of money and time and my moderate cat allergy. 

“If I couldn’t take care of myself, how could I take care of two more living beings?” I thought.

I was correct in thinking that at the time, but after a year of living on my own, I managed to keep myself healthy enough and on a steady social and academic track. Still, I was missing a main source of motivation. 

When I went home that summer, I was reminded of their less-than-satisfactory living situation: they had been living alone in my unfinished basement with piles of storage and limited natural light because my family adopted a dog that they didn’t get along with. So, I impulsively decided to move them in with me during my junior year. I didn’t consider how overwhelming adding cats to my list of responsibilities would be, but I felt morally obligated to take care of them.

This past August, I brought them to my apartment and the responsibility was a major adjustment. However, their arrival also pushed me, once again, to take responsibility for my own care.

Marshmallow reminds me way too early in the morning to feed them by knocking over the little statues on my desk or a glass of water to the floor — which isn’t the most pleasant way to wake up. However, it’s helped me regulate my mornings and eating schedule. Generally, when they eat in the morning, so do I. 

When I change their litter every day, I shower every day. Keeping their spaces sanitary reminds me to maintain my own hygiene, which would sometimes slip to the back of my mind when I struggled with my mental health.

When I take Claritin as my cat allergies start to act up every night, it ensures that I also take my other daily medication or vitamins, which I need to maintain my health as a vegetarian.

My feelings of emptiness have started to be filled with love. Caring for my cats every day reinforces that I have a purpose to continue. They need me, so I will continue to be here for them because I love them. 

When I first moved them in with me, it was difficult to manage being a cat mom on my own, but the more time I spend with them, the more connected to them I feel. Falling asleep with Marshmallow cuddling next to my head and Midnight at my feet is a reminder that I am so much happier and healthier with them here.

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