When you think about it, this makes sense. We all know how soothing it is stroking a cat when she purrs like a motor, so why not use the purr power to help others? OK, so one argument is that cats are often fussy about who they snuggle up to but surely this makes it all the more special when a cat does stay for a cuddle?
Therapy Cats in Action
In an earlier article, 7 Reasons Pets are Good for Your Mental Health we celebrated the benefits of cat ownership on our mental well-being. In addition to measurable improvements in blood pressure, stroke recovery, and patient longevity, the presence of a cat also benefited the mood and mental health of those in the studies.
Medical professionals working in these fields are starting to ask why pets aren’t put on prescription. . . but in a way they already are, as therapy cats.
Institutions such as sheltered housing, rest homes, and hospices are recognizing how the presence of a cat can lift a person’s mood and help people to open up to others. There’s something about the quiet companionship of a cat that helps people relax, smile, and interact with others.
And this isn’t just about a gut-feeling, scientific studies have proven it. When mental health patients were observed interacting with pets, they smiled more often and were less likely to be short-tempered or aggressive, than those lacking feline or canine companionship.
This is also true in other scenarios. Take a care home for example. Elderly residents often hold happy memories of their own pets and long for a fur friend to stroke and fuss over. Time spent with a feline visitor can help to ward off depression, relieve stress, or even break the ice and get people talking. It comes down to good old quality of life and how cats enrich us with their presence. This effect can be so marked that therapists argue purr-therapy works as well or better than pharmaceuticals to aid relaxation.
Cats and Kids
An especially heart-warming example of the therapeutic effect of cats is when they cast their spell on children. A great example of this is the profound effect for good cats can have on children with autism.
Autism is a mental condition where (in its simplest terms) people have great difficulty communicating with others, struggle with abstract ideas, and find it hard to form friendships or relationships. However, it’s been recognised for a while that an autistic child raised with a family pet has better social skills than those without. There’s something about the quiet companionship of a cat which boosts confidence and chattiness.
To the outside world these changes are subtle, such as an autistic child looking longer at a face or stringing together a broken sentence. But to the parent these are wonderful glimpses of the loving child they know is within. It seems that the presence of a cat somehow acts as a bridge between the child and the outside world.
Indeed, cats can sometimes stroll in and win hearts, where a bustling dog might be too intimidating. But of course cats are notorious for not being sociable so it takes a special sort of feline-friend to become a therapy cat.
Hospital wards, children’s home, hospices, rest homes. . . all have a need for therapy pets. So could your cat have what it takes?
Could Your Cat be a Therapy Cat?
A therapy cat is special in more ways than one.
They must have a placid, easy-going temperament, and love lapping up attention. They also have to be up-to-date with their vaccinations and in good health. And, it is preferred that the cat isn’t fed a raw meat diet. This is because of the increased risk of a cat being a carrier of salmonella. Many of the people the cat will be working with are in poor health or have weak immune systems, so not exposing them to potential infection risks is crucial.
But even if you own the purr-fect candidate, this isn’t just a case of turning up with a good-natured cat. Before they can enter a care home or hospital, they must be assessed as suitable under a variety of different circumstances. Pet therapy organizations have varying guidelines, but typically the cat has to be over a year old and been with the current owner for more than six months before they can be considered.
Organizations such as Velma Pets for Therapy (Australia), Pets as Therapy (UK), or Pet Partners (USA) each have their own guidelines and protocols for assessing whether a cat is suitable as a therapy cat or not. You may need to watch a webinar to understand more about volunteering with your cat, and then get your cat checked by a vet and given a character reference.
The cat may be put through a test, such as exposing them to loud or unpredictable circumstances. With this in mind, Pet Partners believe that retired show cats make especially good therapy cats, as they’re used to lots of attention and being handled by strangers.
As the cat’s handler you will also be screened as an appropriate person to volunteer with vulnerable people. You may also have to complete a course, either in person or online, and then shadow another pet therapist to see how things work in the real world. Then, after you probationary period is over, your cat earns their stripes as a therapy cat, volunteering for fuss and strokes, and spreading cat-shaped love.
Now that has to be a happy ending. . . for everyone involved, and well worth the effort.
We’d love to hear about your experiences with therapy cats, please share below.