Hooray for Cats! More and More Are Becoming Therapy Animals.

A dog usually comes to mind when someone mentions a therapy pet, but cats are proving they can fill the role quite well.

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Cats are coming into their own as furry therapists. By: Bobbi Bowers

When I met Bunny, she was in her early 80s and had a lovely condo in an assisted-living facility. Her only surviving child lived out of state.

That was okay, though, because she had Boofams, a dilute tortie cat who had been with her “since her liberation from a Virginia pound some 8 years ago.”

The shy little cat provided Bunny with companionship and a focus for her days. They’d go out on the little patio with Boofams on a secure lead, of course. And Bunny began getting Cat Fancy and various cat books so she’d have a better understanding of what her friend needed.

Then Boofams died after a brief illness. Bunny missed her terribly. She was having more and more trouble with her eyes and heart, however, and felt it was probably wiser not to get another cat.

Bunny could have used visits from a therapy cat.

Cats Helping People

Initially, dogs were the go-to animals when it came to animal-assisted therapy (AAT). There was, I think, this mistaken notion that cats wouldn’t be good at it — that they would squirm, scratch and freak out in general.

Fortunately, that notion has fallen by the wayside, and cats are coming into their own as furry therapists. A couple of my friends are in the process of getting their cats — one of them a 3-legged rescue with the unfortunate name of Legolas — trained to be pet therapy volunteers.

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Therapy cats help all sorts of people. For elderly people like Bunny, they provide stimulation and non-threatening contact. They stimulate seniors’ mental faculties and help them recover more quickly from illnesses. One study conducted in nursing homes in New York, Missouri and Texas showed that AAT resulted in patients’ medication costs dropping an average of 69%.

Then there are children and teens with autism and other disorders. Cats seem to be able to unlock the person trapped within by sheer virtue of their quiet understanding.

Jake the Natural

Obviously, certain cats are better suited to AAT than others. Jake, a handsome ruddy Abyssinian belonging to writer-photographer-cartoonist Coco Koh (The Daily Abyssinian), took to it like this was the work he’d been born to do. Abys are generally pretty sociable cats, and Jake has a sort of Cary Grant charm and aplomb.

Jake is a therapy cat. By: Coco Koh
Jake is a therapy cat. By: Coco Koh

He has been a therapy cat since September 2010. Koh got him certified through Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society), the oldest AAT organization in the country.

She herself had to take a couple 8-hour classes to learn “how to read your animal’s body language, how to behave around sick/elderly/mentally handicapped individuals, and how to deal with situations like someone wanting to keep your animals.” The instructors even touched on Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws.

“To be a therapy animal,” Koh explains, “a cat needs to be sociable and like people, but they also have to be calm and not easily startled. They need to be immune to loud noises, people yelling, other animals (dogs in particular), and unusual machinery and equipment (and the sounds they make), and they need to be comfortable in a strange environment. Having the stroller helps a lot because it’s a piece of ‘home’ in the middle of a strange space.”

They started out visiting assisted-living facilities. Both of them were a bit “too high-energy for that type of environment,” though, and now they visit the long-term psychiatric wards at Tufts Medical Center and the Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller Center in Boston.

Jake takes pride in making the rounds, Koh says. “He’s never really gotten super-attached to any one patient, mainly because in the psych wards there’s a pretty high turnover. He is friendly to everyone, purring, head-butting and rubbing.” The Aby is “very patient and gentle” with patients wanting to hold or hug him. He’ll even let them touch his ears or paws. “He never reacts badly to that — the most he’ll do is pull away or go back to his stroller.”

Eventually, Koh hopes to include children’s hospitals and the like on their itinerary. Jake “loves children, and they are always drawn to him when we go out. He just loves people in general.”

All cats have natural healing abilities, I believe. And some, like Jake, can take their gift on the road and spread the magic.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, which received a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has also received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association, ByLine and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul and A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love, and T.J. has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School and as a columnist.

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