More Than “Just a Cat”: Rescue Pets & Recovery

Emerson knows. In fact, it’s almost like she came preloaded with anxiety-detecting software that allows her to register my every intrusive thought and abuse trigger as it arises. And although she’s only a five-month-old kitten with no formal therapy training, I’d swear she could be marketed as a therapy tool. Because in the short time I’ve known her, she’s already become the most effective coping mechanism I’ve ever had. I think that’s because she understands what a kill-shelter rescue and an abuse survivor have in common: we both know what it feels like to be unloved, trapped, and scared. So, here’s what I wish everyone knew about the relationship between rescue pets and recovery. 

  • We’re Turning Our Vulnerability Into Strength

I adopted Emerson from a kill shelter when she was only one month old. Although I don’t know much about her background before she came to me, I do know that she was one of a litter of seven kittens that had been abandoned and that she was the only one of those kittens who hadn’t been adopted. At one month old, she had already battled a severe respiratory infection that required some pretty serious medical treatment. And even after surviving all that, on the day I adopted her, I learned that she had three days left before she was scheduled to be euthanized. Why? Because people looked at her adorable little splotchy black-and-white face and thought she “wasn’t cute enough.” 

I can’t attest to the precise impact these early struggles had on Emerson. I can’t know what she does or does not remember. But I do know that the day I met her in the shelter, she wrapped around my neck like a scarf and refused to let me go. I know she was desperate to feel loved and find a home. And I know she understood that I needed that too. Today, she exhibits little cues that give me hints about her emotional state. Like me, she’s overly sensitive to loud noises and changes in someone’s tone of voice that might indicate anger or hostility. She often instinctively cringes as if, at some point in her very young life, she’s had experience being hit. She follows me everywhere and seeks me out for random moments of attention as if she’s making sure I’m still there or that I haven’t left her. 

I don’t know everything she’s struggled with in the past. But I do know that, like me, she’s fighting for a happy life and that our recovery is a joint effort. Because every time she snuggles up to me and purrs, it’s as if she’s putting her whole heart into it. As if every purr is an attempt to say, “Thank you for saving me.” And without fail, every time a trigger causes me to break down in tears, she finds me, wrapping herself around my neck like a scarf again and purring until I’ve calmed down. I might not be able to forget what happened to me and I can’t erase what happened to her. But we can use our vulnerability to support each other and turn that pain into strength. 

  • A Rescue Pet is an Unconditional Partner in Recovery

Depression functions differently for everyone. Where some people can effectively maintain relationships but struggle with basic daily tasks, others– like me– are exactly the reverse. And that’s why Emerson is my perfect recovery buddy. Because even on the days where I struggle to reply to messages or engage in the performative emotions that are often required in human relationships, I have her. I don’t have to make sense while I’m crying into her fur. I don’t struggle with the worry that I’m burdening someone else with my feelings as I often fear when seeking human support. And on the days when I don’t feel like I’m worth fighting for, being well enough to love and care for my kitten is the motivational boost I need. 

  • Kill Shelter Pets Need Support

Some days, when I look at Emerson, I still can’t believe that there might have been an alternate universe where this little ball of fluff that rescued me might have been killed. But as sad as that makes me, it’s important to remember that kill shelters aren’t sadistic places that get off on killing animals. Rather, they’re open-admission shelters which operate on a local government level, and that means that they’re both severely underfunded and under legal obligation to take in any animal that’s brought to them, even if they lack the adequate resources to do. That pressure to operate past their capacity means that they’re forced to euthanize based on duration of stay and that’s why pets who enter their doors are on desperately borrowed time. Many people misunderstand that, however, and assume that by supporting kill shelters, they’re contributing to animal cruelty. 

But nothing could be farther from the truth! Just like abuse survivors, the pets in these shelters are in desperate circumstances through no fault of their own. They didn’t ask to be to thrown away or victimized, and just like abuse survivors, they are deserving of hope and help. So, just as I hope that no one would look at me and say I’m not worth their time and support because of what I went through, I hope everyone can extend that same open-minded kindness to the pets who need it most of all.

And if you’re struggling with recovery like I am, I hope you have the opportunity to find a support partner like the one I’ve found in Emerson. Because although our human support networks are invaluable and I certainly couldn’t do without mine, rescue pets have a special understanding of what you’re going through and they offer you the opportunity to form a bond like no other. And as women who passionately support other women through triumph and recovery alike, let’s also remember to support animals who are often the most vulnerable victims of all.

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