The death of her five-year-old nephew had left Sheikh Mehvish distraught and depressed. The feeling of being lost and purposeless had overwhelmed her and she was struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“I felt I had no reason to live now,” she said of the winter of 2017 when her nephew had died of illness. She stopped interacting with her friends and for the next five months, she insulated herself from the world around her.
Mehvish finally found a distraction in Jerry, a white Persian cat that was gifted to her by her friend. The pet in her life meant she had someone to care for and it proved effective to cure her deteriorating mental health.
“I had sleepless nights and anxiety attacks … my heart would race so fast and my hands would become sweaty,” she said. “When I saw Jerry for the first time, I felt scared but was excited to have her.”
Mehvish was also worried that she may not be able to take care of the pet cat. It was her first time with a feline and as the days passed into weeks, Mehvish developed a bond with Jerry.
After three months with Jerry, Mehvish, the 24-year-old engineering student, got another pet, Elsa. “She was a tiny fur ball when I brought her home,” she said. “I started enduring their tantrums, forgetting my own problems,” she said.
Even if she wanted to sit down and think of her nephew, the cats kept Mehvish distracted and busy. “They became my children, my family,” said Mehvish.
With the addition of pets in her life, Mehvish’s visits to a psychiatrist for consultation and medicines became fewer and eventually stopped. “I am better now. I don’t suffer panic attacks now and I don’t feel the need for medicines,” she said.
The pet culture is not common in Kashmir even as the sales have increased over the years. The uptick in sales in the region has also led to an increased number of sale shops across Srinagar which sell different breeds of cats, dogs, birds and ornamental fish.
Basit Riyaz Zargar, a twenty-seven-year-old pet seller, said the sales have increased in the past two years as the response of people has been “really good”. “People like to spend time with their pets as they help people to deal with their stress and depression.”
Riyaz sells reptiles, fish and Persian cats at his shop – Aquatic Kart – in Illahi Bagh, Srinagar, and he said that there is a high demand for the Persian breed.
Ufra Mir, a peace psychologist said, the people don’t usually buy pets to deal with depression in Kashmir. “It happens in the west though,” she said.
Mir said that there is a therapy called Pet Therapy but the people in Kashmir don’t have knowledge about that. “They buy pets because they find them cute but slowly connect with them and realize that they are helping them to deal with depression,” she said.
A research published by the American Psychological Association found that “pets can serve as important sources of social and emotional support for ‘everyday people,’ not just individuals facing significant health challenges”.
Adopting a pet, according to another study published in a Journal of Psychiatric Research, can have “antidepressant pharmacotherapy effects in patients with treatment resistant major depressive disorder”.
Muzaffar Khan, a clinical psychologist, said that it has been seen that people who own pets can have better emotional control and it can help them deal with depression.
According to Khan, pets give people a sense of belonging and when they play with their pets it distracts them. “When a person gets negative thoughts and feelings, or overwhelming emotions all the time, but once they play with pets, it helps people to move away from depressive thoughts,” he said.
A joy to behold
Every winter morning, three years ago, Mehvish would wake up to think about ending her life. She battled her suicidal thoughts for months.
Life changed for Mehvish when she got her pets. She believes that her cats’ presence made a positive intervention in her life.
“If I wouldn’t wake up on time, they would meow for breakfast, water, or clean litter. So, I have to,” said Mehvish.
Like Mehvish, another Srinagar girl Anusha Mughal also found that her pet was helpful in finding a way out to deal with her bottled up emotions.
Mughal was not able to pinpoint the problem that would make her go through panic attacks. She would often experience sudden heart palpitation and dizziness. “I didn’t have any specific issue but I had a habit of overthinking,” she said.
Five months ago, when things went out of hand, her friend suggested Mughal to buy a cat as they provide companionship, a regular routine, and hours of entertainment. Mughal eventually agreed and gifted herself a three-month-old Persian cat and named her Blunt.
Blunt has a “doll’s face and golden fur”, Mughal said.
“My cat cuddles with me and curls herself on my lap and it’s the best feeling. You feel accepted. Loved,” said Mughal.
Even as she still takes medicines for anxiety and stress, the pleasure of embracing “her best friend” has helped Mughal strengthen her coping mechanism.