Think Your Cat Would Make a Won­der­ful Ther­apy An­i­mal? Here's How To Get Started! p60

Ther­apy cats are mak­ing a big dif­fer­ence—in hos­pi­tals, nurs­ing homes, and in the lives of their han­dlers

Modern Cat - - Front Page - By Noa Ni­chol

For most peo­ple, the term “ther­apy an­i­mal” con­jures up vi­sions of a dog—maybe a Lab or Golden Retriever— vis­it­ing fa­cil­i­ties like hos­pi­tals, nurs­ing homes, and schools to in­ter­act with pa­tients, res­i­dents or stu­dents.

It’s a bias that Natalie Pond, mar­ket­ing and strate­gic part­ner­ships co­or­di­na­tor for Belle­vue, Wash­ing­ton-based Pet Part­ners, is very fa­mil­iar with. But while dogs are def­i­nitely the most com­mon ther­apy an­i­mal, cats are gain­ing ground.

In 2016, Pet Part­ners had “15,500plus vol­un­teer ther­apy an­i­mal teams in 50 states pro­vid­ing what we call an­i­mal-as­sisted in­ter­ven­tions or AAIs. Of those, about 94 per­cent did, in fact, in­clude dogs,” she says. “How­ever, we pride our­selves on reg­is­ter­ing many species other than dogs—horses, birds, rab­bits and, of course, cats.”

Cur­rently, Pet Part­ners has a to­tal of 213 reg­is­tered cat teams across the U.S.—a num­ber that, Natalie says, can only grow. She can also think of a few rea­sons why fe­lines are still play­ing catch-up to their ca­nine coun­ter­parts in the realm of an­i­mal ther­apy.

“Cats are a much-more newly do­mes­ti­cated species, which sim­ply means dog own­ers may be more ac­cus­tomed to go­ing out and do­ing things, such as lessons, ac­tiv­i­ties or vol­un­teer work, with their pets,” she says. “It can also be slightly harder to find and iden­tify a cat with the type of per­son­al­ity needed to do this work, which in­volves wear­ing a harness—but not nec­es­sar­ily hav­ing to walk on a leash—and go­ing out of the home to var­i­ous en­vi­ron­ments and in­ter­act­ing with strangers. But, as more cat own­ers learn that they can vol­un­teer with their pet as a ther­apy an­i­mal team, we’re def­i­nitely see­ing an uptick in fe­line teams reg­is­ter­ing with our or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

And that, she says, is a good thing, as Pet Part­ners does get spe­cific re­quests for vis­its from cats.

“There’s truth be­hind that no­tion of cat ver­sus dog peo­ple—some peo­ple just have a nat­u­ral affin­ity to­ward cats,” she ex­plains. “Say, a res­i­dent in a nurs­ing home; maybe they had pos­i­tive as­so­ci­a­tions with cats in child­hood, or fond mem­o­ries of a pet that passed or that they had to give up. For that rea­son, I’m re­ally glad that we have our

cat teams, with such at­ten­tive han­dlers that are ev­ery bit as de­voted to the work as those with dogs. They make great am­bas­sadors for our pro­gram.”

Two such am­bas­sadors, from Spring Bank, Texas, are Bev­erly Oakes and her cat, Ju­nior. Though Ju­nior passed away last Oc­to­ber af­ter a valiant bat­tle with can­cer, he served as a Pet Part­ners ther­apy cat for 16 of his 17 years.

“I res­cued Ju­nior in a ru­ral area where we used to farm—he was one of sev­eral kit­tens dumped at a home of some folks who couldn’t care for them fi­nan­cially,” Bev­erly says. “The lit­tle girl who lived there begged me to take him but, as I al­ready had sev­eral cats, I de­clined. How­ever, each time I saw him, I was aware he held some­thing spe­cial for me.”

The bond be­tween Bev­erly and Ju­nior grew quickly—she of­ten took him out with her and en­joyed “shar­ing” him with oth­ers. She also no­ticed a “spe­cial sen­si­tiv­ity” in the orange Tabby—one in­ci­dent in par­tic­u­lar stands out.

“One day as my hus­band and I rode along in the car with him be­tween us, we got into a bit of a de­bate over some­thing and our voices rose,” she re­calls. “Ju­nior reached up and put his paw on my lips as if to say, ‘calm down.’ It melted me.”

At a year old, Ju­nior be­came reg­is­tered with Pet Part­ners, called the Delta So­ci­ety at the time. Ac­tu­ally, he and Bev­erly be­came a reg­is­tered team, as, Natalie ex­plains, the process very much in­cludes cat and han­dler alike.

“It’s ac­tu­ally a process that starts at home, with a pet owner as­sess­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing if their cat will be suited to and en­joy the work, as Bev­erly did with Ju­nior,” she says. “We don’t want the cat to just tol­er­ate these in­ter­ac­tions but to ac­tu­ally thrive off them and, the fact is, some cats would sim­ply pre­fer to be left alone or stay at home. They may be fear­ful of be­ing taken to strange places or hate trav­el­ing in a car­rier and, ob­vi­ously, would not likely en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in­volved in AAI.”

A highly so­cial cat like Ju­nior, how­ever, is an ex­cel­lent can­di­date for ther­apy cat work. Ac­cord­ing to Bev­erly, “His in­cred­i­bly laid-back per­son­al­ity and sen­si­tiv­ity to peo­ple en­abled him to in­ter­act with all sorts of pop­u­la­tions,” and that’s ex­actly the kind of fe­line that, as Natalie says, will “thrive” as part of a ther­apy an­i­mal team.

“The main thing is that they need to be amenable to in­ter­act­ing with strangers— that they are friendly and tol­er­ant. I think that most peo­ple can re­ally suc­cess­fully gage this with their own an­i­mal,” she says.

With that squared away, the next step to regis­tra­tion with Pet Part­ners, on the

I no­tice, es­pe­cially with res­i­dents and pa­tients who may also have dis­abil­i­ties, the in­ter­ac­tion with Frog, who has his own lim­i­ta­tions, is spe­cial. And I get a lot of joy out of it, too.

“fe­line end of the leash,” is a health screen­ing that is signed off on by a vet­eri­nar­ian. On the hu­man side, a han­dler’s course cov­ers top­ics around vol­un­teer­ing with ther­apy an­i­mals, such as poli­cies, pro­ce­dures, and safe in­ter­ac­tions dur­ing vis­its.

“We go through all the dif­fer­ent ways in which you can sup­port your cat on a visit; how to be safe and re­spon­si­ble when you are vol­un­teer­ing as an an­i­mal ther­apy team,” Natalie out­lines. There is also a skills and ap­ti­tude screen­ing that in­volves a team eval­u­a­tion of both han­dler and cat. This screen­ing ba­si­cally em­u­lates what an ac­tual visit would look like. “For cats we may do an ‘in­ter­act­ing with a friendly stranger’ ex­er­cise or an ‘ac­cept­ing pet­ting’ ex­er­cise,” Natalie con­tin­ues. For cats who will walk on a harness—and not ev­ery cat will, nor do they need to—we could do an ‘out for a walk’ ex­er­cise. Another op­tion is a ‘re­ac­tion to dis­trac­tion’ ex­er­cise, where we’d play au­dio of, say, an ob­ject fall­ing. It’s OK if the cat star­tles, but what we’re look­ing for is to see how they re­cover— and, per­haps most im­por­tantly, how the han­dler pro­ceeds. We’re look­ing for han­dlers who are proac­tive in the way that they in­ter­act with their cat, who are re­as­sur­ing when some­thing out of the or­di­nary oc­curs.”

A “yelling” ex­er­cise, she con­tin­ues, will demon­strate how a cat re­acts to raised voices, while a “pass­ing be­tween three strangers” ex­er­cise ro­tates an an­i­mal from lap to lap to as­sess whether the cat will “stay in place.”

“The ex­er­cises are tweaked to what we imag­ine most com­monly takes place on a visit, with the idea be­ing to test the core skills and ap­ti­tudes so that when things hap­pen, the han­dler has the proac­tive skills to deal with them and the an­i­mal re­mains com­fort­able and well.”

Ju­nior, for his part, passed all of these com­po­nents with fly­ing colours, and went on to be a pro­lific ther­apy cat within the Pet Part­ners fam­ily, vis­it­ing, along with Bev­erly, nurs­ing homes and hospi­tal pe­di­atric wards. In fact, Ju­nior was the im­pe­tus for San An­to­nio’s Univer­sity Hospi­tal start­ing its Paws Up Pet Ther­apy pro­gram in 2014. When Ju­nior re­tired from ther­apy cat work in 2016, the hospi­tal held a re­tire­ment party for him.

“In ad­di­tion to pe­di­atrics, Ju­nior vis­ited two dif­fer­ent li­braries where chil­dren read to him, par­tic­i­pated in nu­mer­ous col­lege de-stres­sors, vis­ited nurs­ing homes, and par­tic­i­pated in many pre­sen­ta­tions through the years, in­clud­ing a con­fer­ence that brought in chil­dren with a rare ill­ness from all over the world. He also worked some with mil­i­tary pa­tients,” Bev­erly says. “He eased peo­ple’s fears, took away some of the pain, made peo­ple smile, and we even watched blood pres­sures drop dur­ing and af­ter in­ter­act­ing with him.”

“An­i­mal-as­sisted in­ter­ac­tions are thought, anec­do­tally and, in­creas­ingly, through ac­tual sci­en­tific re­search and stud­ies, to have a broad range of ben­e­fits, both phys­i­cal and emo­tional,” Natalie

con­firms. “One thing we’ve heard a lot from care fa­cil­i­ties, where pa­tients may be iso­lated from fam­ily and friends, is that the so­cial ben­e­fits are huge. With cats in par­tic­u­lar, who are small enough to sit in a lap or with a pa­tient on a hospi­tal bed, the in­ter­ac­tion can be very spe­cial.”

Another Pet Part­ners vol­un­teer, Janet Freehling of Nor­walk, Ohio, agrees. Af­ter all, she’s seen the tremen­dous im­pact a ther­apy an­i­mal can have first hand. Both of her cats, Cosmo and Tux, were reg­is­tered to do the work and, though both have since passed, ex­pe­ri­enced many pos­i­tive in­ter­ac­tions with clients.

“Though Cosmo’s had many vis­its worth shar­ing, my favourite is a hos­pice story,” Janet says, smil­ing. “Walk­ing into the unit, I asked a nurse who would en­joy a visit and who would not. Point­ing at one of the doors, she cau­tioned us to stay away from a room be­cause the pa­tient was an­gry and could be un­pleas­ant. Cosmo, wear­ing his harness and leash, pulled me to­ward that room, stopped in the door­way and waited. I tried to re­di­rect him, but he wouldn’t budge, so I asked the man if he’d like a visit with Cosmo. He turned over and gave me a turn and leave, un­til he looked down at my white cat. The change in his ex­pres­sion was im­me­di­ate. He smiled and in­vited us in. Soon, Cosmo was in bed with him and we were chat­ting like old friends!”

As man and cat got ac­quainted, the phone rang. The man an­swered and, Janet re­calls, told the caller to ring back later be­cause “Cosmo, the cat, is here.”

“It was amaz­ing to me to see the dif­fer­ence a cat could make,” she says, ad­ding that such in­ci­dents oc­curred time and time again over the many years she vol­un­teered with her ther­apy cats.

“Both Cosmo and Tux en­joyed their work,” she re­calls. “They were both very peo­ple ori­ented. Cosmo was al­ways calm—even with loud, tear­ful or ag­i­tated peo­ple. Med­i­cal equip­ment, sick, ag­i­tated or dy­ing peo­ple never up­set him. Tux’s at­ti­tude was very dif­fer­ent. He seemed to ex­pect peo­ple to pay at­ten­tion to him. He’d of­ten in­ter­rupt pa­tients try­ing to shoot pool by ly­ing in the mid­dle of the ta­ble. It made me smile when no one seemed up­set at the de­lay in game.”

A sec­ond Amer­i­can or­ga­ni­za­tion, Love on a Leash, also pro­vides a frame­work and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for peo­ple to pro­vide pet ther­apy to oth­ers. Founded in the early 1980s in San Diego, the non-profit boasts chap­ters in nearly ev­ery state and more than 2000 mem­bers work­ing as ther­apy teams with their dog, rab­bit or cat.

Two of those vol­un­teers are Kokomo, In­di­ana-based Jaetta Fer­gu­son, with her cats Flash and Frog, and her sis­ter, Paula Blunt, with Harley and Davidson.

“A lot of peo­ple don’t re­al­ize cats can do this,” Jaetta says. “The key is they need to re­ally like peo­ple and en­joy go­ing out and be­ing touched and talked to by strangers, and re­main calm in those sit­u­a­tions. Ba­si­cally, a very so­cial cat that likes ev­ery­one and any­one could be cer­ti­fied as a ther­apy cat.”

In fact, so­cial cats with dis­abil­i­ties can do ther­apy work, too—a topic that’s very close to Jaetta’s heart. Her Frog was born with a con­di­tion called cere­bel­lar hy­popla­sia, com­pa­ra­ble to cere­bral palsy in hu­mans. Though it took Frog a bit longer than Flash to be­come Love on a Leash cer­ti­fied, he en­joys the work just a much as his fur brother—and makes just as much of a pos­i­tive im­pact.

“We mainly visit nurs­ing homes, and Frog is a reg­u­lar cud­dle bug with the res­i­dents,” she says. “While Flash is a so­cial but­ter­fly who wants to spend a few min­utes with one per­son and then move on to the next, Frog will just lay hap­pily in a lap for­ever. I no­tice, es­pe­cially with res­i­dents and pa­tients who may also have dis­abil­i­ties, the in­ter­ac­tion with Frog, who has his own lim­i­ta­tions, is spe­cial. And I get a lot of joy out of it, too.”

That, in fact, is another re­mark­able out­come of the work done by ther­apy cats: the pos­i­tive im­pact on the han­dler.

“Just see­ing some­one’s face light up when the cats are

there—it’s the most heart­warm­ing feel­ing imag­in­able,” Jaetta says. “And to share that with my cats, who are my world. There’s noth­ing bet­ter.” Her sis­ter agrees. “You see, laugh­ter, you see tears— it’s very emo­tional in the best way,” says Paula. “I of­ten hear, ‘Oh, I used to have a cat when I was grow­ing up … ’ and it’s nice know­ing that it may be help­ing that per­son to re­live a hap­pier time in their life. I go home feel­ing good ev­ery time.” The sen­ti­ments are sim­i­lar for Bev­erly, who is now hop­ing that her new kit­ten, Zane Grey, will fol­low in Ju­nior’s paw prints and be­come a ther­apy cat. “There is noth­ing quite like be­ing able to share your an­i­mal, that has so many ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fits for you, with other peo­ple,” she says. “To wit­ness oth­ers reap­ing some of those same ben­e­fits is price­less. To think I may have helped some­way, even for a brief mo­ment, makes it all worth it.” For Janet, be­ing part of a ther­apy team with both Cosmo and Tux has im­pacted her life pro­foundly. “My ther­apy pets have changed my life for the bet­ter,” she ex­plains. “I tend to be shy and quiet but, when my ther­apy part­ner is with me, I can com­fort­ably talk to any­one and have given many talks pro­mot­ing res­cue and ther­apy an­i­mals. The first time I took Cosmo to visit the nurs­ing home was an ‘aha’ mo­ment for me. Res­i­dents, staff and vis­i­tors wanted to meet the cat. It’s funny— they of­ten for­get my name, but never Cosmo’s! I feel blessed to have had him and Tux in my life, and hope to find another cat who can en­joy ther­apy work with me.”

A Love On A Leash ther­apy cat works his magic.

Pet Part­ners ther­apy cat Ju­nior cud­dles up.

Above: Pet Part­ners ther­apy cats pro­vide com­fort and cheer.

Pet Part­ners ther­apy cat Cosmo.

Pet Part­ners ther­apy cat Tux.

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