Pets and Mental Wellness: Dawn LaFontaine Of Cat in the Box On How to Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet

Pets and Mental Wellness: Dawn LaFontaine Of Cat in the Box On How to Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet

Cuddle or stroke your pet. Petting or snuggling with your pet can reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body. It leads to feelings of calmness and has been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure.

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 Dawn LaFontaine.

Dawn LaFontaine is the founder of Cat in the Box. Cat in Box designs and sells products that meet indoor cats’ biological and psychological needs, and their guardians desire for attractive, well-made products they can be proud to display in their homes.


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?

I’m a lifelong animal lover. Knowing how much I loved animals a child, my parents allowed me to fill our home with a small menagerie. I began inventing little toys for my pets while I was still in elementary school.

As a grown woman and mother, I felt it was important to instill a sense of love and respect for animals in my children. Together, my kids and I involved ourselves in animal rescue, devoting many hours to rehabilitating former racing greyhounds and fostering baby pet rats for a very special small-animal rescue.

All along, I continued to design things for our own pets when I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for in a store. When I couldn’t find a sweater for my perpetually chilled 160-pound great Dane, I sewed one for her, even though I don’t know how to sew. I designed a “pigloo” for my kids’ guinea pigs, using a plastic Wal-Mart bowl and some fleece scraps, to help keep them warm in winter.

The idea for Cat in the Box came to me when I was visiting the home of my mother’s cat sitter with her. I noticed that her otherwise impeccable living room was crowded with old Amazon boxes. I already knew that cats loved boxes (there’s actually some pretty serious science that explains why), but it got me thinking, “Why do cat owners put up with dirty ugly shipping cartons in their homes?”

My products not only meet a cat’s scientific, biological need for access to a cardboard box, but are fun and attractive for their guardians, too. Many love to use them as clever props for their social-media accounts.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

For me, it’s not one story, but a million little stories.

One of the unexpected joys of running Cat in the Box has been the opportunity to connect with so many cat lovers, through social media, my blog, and product sales.

Every day of my working life I’m talking (virtually, or otherwise) with animal-loving people like me. I’m “seeing” into their very living rooms and lives, and getting to know them and the cats they share their lives with.

I get to hear their questions and concerns about living with cats, and the joys and pleasures, too. These are the inspiration for many of the posts in my blog about cat behavior and health.

This opportunity to connect with other cat lovers was not something I expected, nor even thought about when I started Cat in the Box. But it’s absolutely the best part about running this business.

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?

I’m an avid reader. I read everything: newspapers, magazines, cereal boxes. I have not gone a single day, since I first learned how to read, without reading a least a few pages in whatever book I’m currently immersed in. I have a library in my house, and I keep a towering stack of unread books by my nightstand.

The first chapter book I ever finished by myself was Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, and it is still one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read. In the story, Fern Arable, a farmer’s young daughter, asks to raise a piglet as a pet. She’s offered the runt of the litter, and raises him to such good health that he becomes a candidate for slaughter, setting the stage for the book’s main plot.

Although I lived in the suburbs, in townhouse, not a farmhouse, I related immediately to Fern and her bond with Wilbur the pig. It validated my own love for animals, and understanding of the deep relationships we can enjoy with them.

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?

The Covid-19 pandemic was hard for everyone, but it seemed harder for my 80-year-old mother than for other people, myself included.

My mother had lost her husband of 52 years, my father, unexpectedly, a couple of years earlier, and was still finding her footing as a single woman. She’d been married at 20, and had never, in her whole life, lived alone.

My mother is an extreme extrovert who loves to be among people. In fact, she truly needs to be among people. She doesn’t have hobbies, doesn’t have private interests, and she can’t bear to eat a meal without another person sitting across the table.

She suffered being alone during the forced quarantine. I truly believe her two cats, Quincy and Aggie, were the living things who saved her psyche during that difficult time. We spoke on the phone daily, and she often related how their antics and their company, not to mention the rhythm of life that caring for a pet creates, were her saving grace.

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?

It’s not an either/or. It’s not that you’re a “people person” or a “pet person.” For people who love animals, relationships with both species offer different benefits.

Pets will just be with you, no matter what you’re doing. It’s the idea behind canine (or feline) reading buddies for kids who are just learning this essential skill. While a child can certainly learn to read without a patient dog or cat buddy beside her to “listen,” there’s an added dimension when you’re doing an activity with another living thing.

What makes interactions with animals different from interactions with humans, is that animals are non-judgmental. Whatever you’re doing — whether learning to read, or washing the dishes — a pet doesn’t judge, question, comment, or suggest.

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?

The science is real. Animals don’t just make us “feel” better. They actually make us better.

I’m going to speak on this topic as it relates to cats, because that’s my area of expertise. A recent study by Pendry, et. al involving stressed-out college students showed that petting cats (and dogs, too) directly influenced the amount of cortisol in their saliva. Cortisol is the “fight or flight” stress hormone that can save your life in a real emergency, but can do real damage to the body and mind when the cortisol spigot is turned on all the time.

Owning cats has long been known to have health benefits. A 2015 Australian study showed that cat owners had better psychological health, including lower incidences of stress, anxiety, and depression, than non-cat owners.

A 2002 study showed that cat owners had baseline lower heart rates and blood pressure than non-cat owners, and those cardiac markers remained lower during stressful activities.

A cat in your life can provide real physical and psychological benefits.

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 own dentist had a little Maltese dog that had assigned herself the role of therapy dog to dental patients.

This dentist lived above her own practice and her little dog would wander down during business hours. I think the intention was for the dog to stick by the reception desk during the workday, but this pup had a mind of her own.

She also had a knack for identifying patients who really needed her. Without asking, she’d leap up onto the lap of a patient undergoing a procedure and immediately settle in for petting and a nap. She didn’t annoy or fidget; she was merely a relaxing presence.

I’m not particularly nervous or uncomfortable at the dentist, but I’m a real dog lover, and so it was always an honor to have this little girl on my lap. And the crazy thing was, as “not-nervous” as I thought I was, any tension that I didn’t even know I had, instantly melted away, as I ran my hand over her soft fur.

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?

I think the question is less about which pet will meet a person’s mental health needs as which pet best suits a person’s lifestyle.

For people who live in apartments that don’t allow dogs or cats, there is a wide world of animal species that could provide many of the same mental-health benefits. (Do check with your landlord first, before adopting any pets).

For example, my daughter lives in an apartment but her landlord was amenable to her request to keep a trio of pet rats. If you love dogs, but are not allowed to keep a dog where you live, a couple of pet rats (you need to keep at least two) is a wonderful substitute. They’re intelligent, trainable, and cuddly creatures.

If you travel a lot, or are away from home long hours every day, a cat or dog is definitely not for you. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not “independent.” They are social animals who get lonely and bored when their human guardians are out of the house too long.

You would do well to welcome a pair or more of guinea pigs or gerbils, a hamster, or even a reptile into your home. So long as their enclosures are enriching, you can often meet an exotic pet’s needs even if you’re not home all day.

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?

We all want to feel wanted, and even more importantly, needed. Pets in our care literally require humans for their most basic survival needs.

Feeding, walking, and grooming a pet can add structure and dimension to a pet guardian’s life. It forces a guardian to stick to a daily routine, which can give that person a sense of importance and achievement.

Walking a dog (or a cat!) is not only a great form of exercise, but it’s an opportunity to get outside and meet other people. The presence of an animal invites even strangers to stop and chat, and can help keep a person from feeling isolated.

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 . Adopt, don’t shop. Not only will you be giving a homeless animal a chance to have a loving home, but you will be opening up a spot in a shelter to save a second pet’s life. Doing good, in this case, is not only good for the adopted pet you bring home, but it’s good for you, too. Being kind, and contributing to the world has been linked to an increased feeling of well-being.

Plus, you get to bring a new living thing into your world! What joy!

2 . Play with your pet. There is saying, “To the world, you one person, but to your pet, you are his whole world.” Playing with a guardian is as essential to the well-being of your pet as is food and water. But play is good for you, too! Studies have shown that interacting with animals can reduce loneliness, improve feelings of social support, and boost your mood.

3 . Create a routine. Pets like when their world is predictable and often demands routine. Our guinea pigs would “wheee” for their breakfast of romaine lettuce and carrots, our dogs dance around by the front door when it’s time for their morning walks, and my foster kittens would mew loudly for their morning wet food.

But routines aren’t just good for animals. They’re good for people, too. Research has shown that routine is calming and reduces anxiety. Routines help you take control over your day and your life.

4 . Exercise. For some pets, like dogs, exercising them is just part of good animal husbandry. Dogs, especially, need an outlet for their sometimes boundless energy, and they need to be tired to be able to listen and behave the way many of us want them to in the house.

But exercise is good for human physical and mental health, too. Not only does doing physical activity, like walking a dog (or even a cat), help manage weight and cardiovascular health, and build muscle and stamina, it releases feel-good chemicals like endorphins, and serotonin that can improve mood.

5 . Cuddle or stroke your pet. Petting or snuggling with your pet can reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body. It leads to feelings of calmness and has been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure.

Most pets love human attention, especially petting. But if your pet is not a cuddler, respect that boundary and find another way that you can both enjoy each other’s company.

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?

I’m not a psychologist, but I can share from personal experience that the grief from the loss of a pet can be very intense.

For me, there are three qualities of pet guardianship that make pet loss so difficult:

The pet shares your home and daily routine. When you share a living space with another being, their absence can be felt very intensely. The loss of even the simple chores, like letting the dog out into the yard, or washing the cat bowl, that were once part of daily living, can deepen the loss.

Pets are like “babies.” I would never compare the loss of a pet to the loss of a child, but pets are dependent upon us for almost everything, in much the same way human children are. This confers upon them a kind of vulnerability that makes their guardians feel protective and responsible. When they die, it can feel like a “failure to protect” those we were charged with protecting.

We often decide when our pets will die. We have a choice, when it comes to pets, to not let them suffer at the end of their days. While this opportunity to prevent or relieve suffering can be a gift, it also confers upon the guardian a momentous responsibility, even burden.

Many of us, who love our pets deeply, struggle with end-of-life decisions. Is too soon better or worse than too late? How do I know if my pet is truly suffering? What would the pet want, if you could ask him? Was it a mistake to wait as long as I did to euthanize? Or did I end a life when there was still life left to live?

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?

I would protect wild spaces.

I would start a movement to buy up land as it becomes available, to leave fallow, or to re-wild.

This planet needs earth that has not been paved over to absorb rains to prevent flooding. It needs meadows to let pollinators recover so we’ll have food to eat. It needs lakes and grasslands for migrating birds to stop and rest so that they can take their place in the food chain. It needs forests for trees to sequester CO2 so that we can all have clean air to breathe.

And humans need to be able to go these wild places, so that we can fully be the humans we were meant to be.

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. :-)

I would be falling all over myself to have lunch with Cesar Millan, if the opportunity ever arose.

I watched his first series, The Dog Whisperer, when it first aired on TV, and I’ve watched the entire series, and everything he has ever made since, several times over.

What stunned me the first time I watched it was the idea that dogs had their own psychology.

I had never thought of dogs or any other animal that way. I had always loved my animals, and provided them excellent care. But I had never thought about their own psychological needs, and how their unique ways of thinking impacted my ability to relate with them.

Since, I’ve owned several dogs, and Cesar’s way of thinking has completely changed the way I live with and interact with my dogs. It’s made me a better guardian and a better trainer, and I suspect it’s made me easier to live with for the dogs! I have very well-behaved dogs.

This way of thinking was actually the foundation for my cat blog, Kitty Contemplations. I realized that even people who love their cats very much misinterpret their behavior. They don’t understand why cats spray, or pee on their bed, or leap at the sight of a cucumber.

I’ve made it my mission, through the blog, to educate cat lovers about cat psychology and behavior.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please visit my website, , and sign up for my “mewsletter,” to get access to my latest blog posts.

I would also love to have you join the Cat in the Box community on Instagram ( ), Facebook (, or TikTok (


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 .



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