Pets and Mental Wellness: Mario Arbore Of Square Paws On How to Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet

Pets and Mental Wellness: Mario Arbore Of Square Paws On How to Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet

Play with your pets! From throwing a toy to play fetch with your dog or using a feather toy to entice your cat to “hunt,” adding time to play with your pets everyday frees your mind from the worries and obsessions you have from the day, even if only for a little while.

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 Mario Arbore.

Mario is the founder of Square Paws and is an architect by trade. As a graduate of Syracuse University, Mario has over 30 years’ experience in architecture. both commercial and residential. His interest in various building typologies and iconic everyday elements coupled with a love for art and color sparks his imagination in the cat creations that comprise Square Paws’ catalogue of work.

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?

Iwas born in New York and raised on Long Island and have always loved animals. Unfortunately, my older brother had severe allergies to dogs and cats, and we had to give our pet dog away when I was five. As an adult, living on my own in a small studio apartment in Manhattan, I wanted desperately to have a pet but didn’t want to subject a dog to being cooped up in a tiny apartment while I was at work all day, so I opted on getting a cat.

I had never really liked cats that much, always thinking they were too aloof and independent for me. My girlfriend and I at that time had selected a beautiful gray male kitten to adopt, but he was still nursing. So, the adoption agency recommended we foster an older female cat who had to be kept away from the other cats because she was very territorial. They told me I could return her in two weeks when the male kitten would be ready for adoption. But, after one night with Dakota (whom I renamed Slinky), I knew I was smitten and couldn’t allow her to be bounced around to some other owner or worse, to be euthanized.

And this is how I discovered how loving and soulful cats can be as pets.

Years later, during a lull in my architectural workload, I decided to create a cat tower for my cats (which, at that point had grown to three cats), and I started with a lighthouse. One thing led to another, and I now have designed and built close to 200 different cat tree compositions.

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

In 2019 we were contacted by Beth Stern. A friend of hers had been following us on social media and relayed to Beth the kinds of creative work we did for cats. Beth called us to see if we could create something special in one of the cat rooms at Bianca’s Furry Friends, the cat-wing addition she and Howard Stern were benefactors of at North Shore Animal League America. Billy Joel had donated a significant sum towards the project, and they wanted to honor him with a cat-room that would iconically be seen as the “Billy Joel” room. We began design work, and the NSALA folks said they changed their plans and wanted to outfit TWO rooms dedicated to Billy Joel. Although it was a tight timeframe to work in, we were able to make two very special spaces: a Piano-cat room with a functional keyboard and catified amplifiers, and a New York State of Mind room with a subway car, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge, all cat-friendly structures.

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?

The Alchemist is a perennial favorite of mine. It serves as both a timeless fable and also a guide to life, written with such simplicity and peacefulness. It resonates with me because it speaks of the journey of life, of how we don’t know where the path leads, but if we follow our hearts then the path will reveal itself effortlessly.

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?

Although it was heart-wrenching for me to do, I relocated my first cat, Slinky, to Florida to live with my parents. They were retired and could take better care of her than I could with my busy life in NYC. In 2010, my mother passed away. Multiple family members from New York flew down to attend her funeral. On the day of the funeral, Slinky must have slipped out one of the doors without my relatives realizing it. We searched for days to find her, but no luck. Finally, I had to return to my work in NYC and left doubly heartbroken. My father was now more alone than ever and had longed for the comfort of our cat’s presence just to ease the grief. Every night he would leave the screen door open just enough for Slinky to slip back in, even leaving a dish of cat food to lure her in. But no luck.

Ten days later, Slinky returned one evening, walking in as chatty as could be, as if she was telling my dad of all the things she encountered in her journey outside. (Not unlike Santiago in The Alchemist, albeit not as long a journey as his.) It was as if she needed to mourn my mother’s passing privately. And, now that she was ready, Slinky could be with my father again and help him rebuild his life.

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?

Pets have a simpler, more immediate way of communicating. They don’t concern themselves with what we humans might think of them. Whether it’s a request for food or wanting physical affection, pets live in the moment. We humans can get caught up too much in the past and in the future: “Did I make a mistake at work yesterday?” “How can I advance my career next year?” Pets bring us back in the moment.

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?

There are studies showing that a cat’s purr is equal to a frequency that can help lower your blood pressure. And dogs require walking, which is a simple and great exercise to get your energy flowing. And then there’s the cuteness factor. Just seeing them when we get home can bring us so much joy and comfort, having someone who unconditionally loves us for who we are, and being able to snuggle with them at night provides great happiness.

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?

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a multitude of pets being adopted from animal shelters across the US. Not only was this a good thing for humans suffering during a period of uncertainty and fear. But it also relieved the stress of so many shelter workers! Shelters and foster groups are always stretched to the max… time, money, work… it’s a thankless job. And we saw how people working in tandem towards adopting pets can provide some solace to the folks who work and volunteer at these shelters.

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?

Mental health is so tied to our personalities. Of course, every animal has its own soul and its own personality. But it’s good for people who are considering adoption of a pet, whether it’s a dog or cat or if it’s some other type of animal, that they look to see what animals they resonate with. It’s also important to do your research. Someone may love dogs, but they may not have the patience to train them or the tolerance for their barking. They should find a breed of dog that suits them. Similarly, someone may love the beauty of a bird, but they may not be prepared for the cage-cleaning required. There’s nothing worse than a pet that gets surrendered to a shelter; it’s stressful for the animals and for the humans, too. People should be focused on attracting a pet into their lives that will bring them joy.

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?

I think this circles back to living in the moment. All of the physical aspects of caring for an animal take us out of the past and the future and force us to focus on the now. Plus, caring for another living soul on this planet gives us a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose, two things we need.

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. At the basic, physical level, we recommend making something for your pets. Aside from the fact that this is what we do at Square Paws, the kernel of creating something for your pet carries your energy of love and compassion, and animals do sense these things.

This could be reflective of anything you have a talent for. If it’s woodworking, build your cat a cat tree. Make your bird a custom birdcage. If it’s cooking, make your dog a baked treat. If it’s sewing, make a dog or cat bed. No matter what it is, there will be an added bond forged between you and your animals.

2. Actively practice forgiveness with your pets. There are times when they poop or throw up on your favorite carpet. It’s easy for us to forget that we have wild animals that are living in our homes. Having patience with them is equal to having patience with ourselves and others.

3. Play with your pets! From throwing a toy to play fetch with your dog or using a feather toy to entice your cat to “hunt,” adding time to play with your pets everyday frees your mind from the worries and obsessions you have from the day, even if only for a little while.

4. Food! Being actively aware of what makes a healthy diet for your pet helps your mind engage and be aware of the food YOU take into your body. Explore what kinds of food your pets would eat in the wild, and then see if they have a liking to that food. Raw diets have been touted for years for cats since cats are often eating their prey raw in the wild. If your budget is restricted, find creative ways of giving them good, healthy food as often as you can.

5. Connect with your community. In urban areas, it’s fairly easy to find “dog parks.” For other animals, there are conventions and shows that can be found where you can meet up with other lovers of the same species. Or, if you can, volunteer at your local shelter, or connect with animal rescue groups that might need you to foster. Find out where your community is and try to be of service. This does so much good for your oxytocin levels and for your sense of self-esteem.

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?

“Allowing” seems to be the key word for dealing with the loss of a pet. Allow your pet to leave their body when it’s time. Allow yourself to experience grief in all its forms. Don’t try to bottle it up. Allow yourself to cry and feel remorse. Allow yourself to feel gratitude for the time you had with your pet.

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?

Meditation and the power of intention. We can be very easily influenced by those around us and the media we are bombarded with every day. If everyone could spend time two or three times a day being quiet and focusing on what they want to create, on what kind of world they want to live in, the planet would benefit immensely!

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. :-)

Stevie Wonder would be the person I would want to have time with. If nothing more than to thank him for sharing his musical genius and human compassion with the world.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

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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