Standing before a crate at a pet shop in Downtown Cairo, Ahmed is trying to encourage Nada, his six-year-old daughter, to pick a kitten that she would like to take home.
With curious eyes and after a bit of hesitation, Nada holds her dad’s hand with one hand and with the other points to a grey kitten with blue eyes and says “this one.” When the kitten is taken out of the cart, Ahmed passes it to Nada and helps her to carefully put it in the cat carrier they have brought along.
Nada is immediately immersed in patting the kitten. “I think it was a good idea to get her the kitten. It will help her deal with the fact that I have to travel and work abroad without being able to take her or Maha, my wife, with me – at least for a while,” Ahmed says.
It is a matter of days before Ahmed starts to pack and get ready for a new job in the Gulf. When he announced the news to Nada, his only daughter, a few weeks ago, she did not like the idea and lost some of her otherwise active and friendly nature.
Maha consulted a psychologist friend because she knew that her daughter was very attached to her father.
“The psychologist said it was normal and that we needed to think of doing something that would keep Nada busy and give her a sense of fulfilment to make up for my absence,” Ahmed said. He added that his wife had observed Nada’s affinity to cats.
“So, I said let’s get her a cat, and Maha immediately approved. I hope it will work,” he said.
According to Mona Ramadan, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Damietta University, “pets have a scientifically proven therapeutic effect” on many people. This is especially the case with those under pressure, whether emotional or mental, she added.
“Many people, including children and the elderly, who are suffering from disorders, grieving, or traumas could really benefit from the presence of pets,” Ramadan said.
Pets give people the chance to be care-givers and to be rewarded for this through their pets’ purrs or other noises, leading to the release of relaxation and happiness hormones. This, she said, is also the basis of pet-assisted therapy.
It was in the US in the 1960s that researchers first started to identify evidence of the joy that people may feel as a result of even short-term or sporadic interaction with pets. A few years down the road, it was proven that pets can help with the release of serotonin, a hormone responsible for relaxation.
In Egypt, Ramadan said, psychotherapy is starting to find its way to pet-assisted therapy that is already well-established in several countries. “We are still at the beginning of the learning process, but it has started to happen,” she said.
In February this year, Ramadan worked in collaboration with US experts to organise an online course for interested psychiatrists, psychologists, and others who work in therapy and relevant fields, including by providing care for children with special needs, elderly people with declining health, and individuals with tough health problems.
“The idea everyone in this course was trying to learn was how to integrate pet-assisted therapy into their work,” Ramadan said. She added that the therapy does not replace the need for medical assistance or regular psychotherapy.
“It just helps with the therapy, and of course in some cases it could be a big part of it,” she explained. “Ultimately, people with cognitive issues will have to have treatment, but pets can certainly help,” she added.
Ramadan explained that in cases of the loss of loved ones, severe illnesses, or acute loneliness, pets have been proven to be of help in assisting people to overcome their pain. In wars, natural disasters, or shocks, cats, dogs, and other pets, including even horses, sheep, and camels, have proved to be of help.
Ramadan herself found a deal of support during her studies when she decided to take care of Zaghloul, a male kitten that was born in her workplace about four years ago. “It was such a beautiful experience of companionship and a relationship that gave joy and positive energy,” she said.
However, she added that pet-assisted therapy can be complex because it depends on many variables, including the nature of the individual and their wish or lack thereof to have a pet. There is also the nature of the pet and its ability to be friendly and loving and the chemistry between the individual and the pet.
“It is a matter of compatibility… otherwise it does not work well,” she stressed.
It is obvious that some people are more fond of dogs than cats and others prefer to have birds or fish. “It is really very individual, but overall cats and dogs are known to be able to help people feel more grounded when they need to,” she explained.
Ramadan was set to take up a scholarship on pet-assisted therapy last week. This is something that is getting more and more attention from Egyptian psychiatrists, she said. “I think it will be a matter of just a few years or so before we have enough doctors who can operate the system well,” she said.
Ramadan’s trip coincided with Cats Day, which was drawing attention on social media in Egypt with several people posting photographs of their cats, including some of the cats they had had when they were children.
Among these pictures was one that Cairo resident Seham had tagged for her son Hashem with a comment reading, “it’s mine.”
“Remember when I first brought the kitten home, and you woke dad up to force me to get it out of the house,” she asked.
Hashem also recalled that four years ago his heart had fallen for a kitten he saw on the street. The kitten was meowing so hard on a cold winter evening that Hashem decided to take it home without really thinking whether it was going to be for one night or for a life-long adoption.
After a few weeks, his mother and father had started to get used to the presence of Sharbat, who grew into a female ginger cat. And in less than four months, his mother, a house-wife, and his father, who was just retiring, were talking about “feeding the cat, taking the cat to the vet, asking where the cat was, and so on,” he said.
“It has certainly given them company, especially as my elder sister lives with her husband in Europe and I am now busy with my job,” he added.
Hashem is engaged to be married later this year, and his parents have been clear that when he gets married he is not taking Sharbat with him. “They say it is theirs, and they argue about who Sharbat loves more,” Hashem said.
Hashem is happy to see Sharbat putting smiles on the faces of his parents that he might otherwise only see when his sister comes to visit with her children. He thinks that before moving out, he might get his father a puppy – only fair because Sharbat seems to like his mother more, he said.
“None of this was intentional, but it made me see what a pet could do for people when they retire and no longer have responsibilities. I advised a couple of friends to get pets for their parents as well, and it also worked well,” Hashem said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly