by Nancy Marano
I shared the hospital bed where I spent my time following several spinal surgeries with Sammy and Rocky, my two cat companions. They’ve honed their skills as therapy cats in the last few years by helping me through more surgeries than I care to count.
Sammy and Rocky were patient and persistent during my recovery. They checked the sheets, they searched my face to determine if I was all right and, best of all, they cuddled next to me and purred.
This spring, when I had a kidney removed, they again moved into bed with me and watched over my progress. Once they decided I was on the road to recovery, they lessened their therapy duties. Instead of being there every minute, they came in every few hours to gauge my progress.
The term “therapy animal” usually conjures up a picture of a dog visiting hospitals or helping a disabled person perform a specific task. But that isn’t always the case. There are cats who serve as therapy cats in more traditional settings.
There is considerable research establishing the healthful benefits of interaction between humans and animals. A recent study by neurology professor Adnan Qureshi at the University of Minnesota even suggests cat owners are less likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than people who don’t own cats.
When people take a pet to visit children or adults in care facilities, they usually get an immediate reaction. Patients often are able to communicate with an animal even when they have difficulty interacting with people. Stroking an animal has physiological effects as well such as lowering blood pressure and slowing heart rate.
Founded in 1977, the Delta Society is one of the oldest groups registering animals and volunteers to perform animal-assisted activities in local communities. Their Pet Partners program screens and trains volunteers along with their pets for participation in local programs. Pet Partners visit hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and schools.
Rona Hammetter, a former team evaluator for the Delta Society in New Mexico, says cats are tested the same way small dogs are to determine their suitability for the Pet Partners program.
“Cats are carried and passed between people. They don’t have to execute commands, as dogs do, but they need to be calm and enjoy petting. They also must accept being with lots of people and dogs in various environments. Temperament is the key to whether they are accepted into the program or not,” she says.
When Nancy Kucik met Laser at the humane society she was a goner. The blue-point, Siamese kitten won her heart and has continued winning people’s hearts ever since.
They are a registered Pet Partners team with Hand-In-Paw, a local group in the Birmingham, AL area. Kucik and Laser visit a children’s hospital, a geriatric unit, nursing homes and hospice patients. They also do presentations at schools. “I do as much community outreach as I can to show people that cats really can do pet-assisted therapy,” Kucik says.
One of the most memorable experiences Kucik and Laser had was their continuing visits to Mrs. P, a 91-year-old patient at the local hospice. On their first visit, Laser snuggled close to Mrs. P.’s hip where she could rest her hand on his back. She talked about the cat she and her husband had years before. They visited Mrs. P. every Sunday and became good friends. Finally the call came that Mrs. P. was failing and wouldn’t live more than a few days. On that last Sunday visit, Laser snuggled close as he always did. When they got ready to leave, Mrs. P. whispered “Thank you.” She died a few days later.
“I always encourage people with friendly, outgoing cats to consider getting them involved in pet-assisted therapy,” Kucik says. “The biggest hurdle for most cats is strange environments. The most important factor to consider is that no matter how much a person wants to get his/her cat involved in pet-assisted therapy, if the cat is unhappy or uncomfortable in this role, it won’t work.”
According to Kucik, Laser was born to be a wonderful therapist. “I did have to train him to wear a harness, though. The best thing a person can do to get their pet ready for therapy work is to take the cat anywhere that allows pets and expose him to as many people and environments as possible.”
Retired show cats are often good therapy cats because they are used to being handled and are relaxed around people and other animals. A cat should be able to walk on a leash and ride well in a car, too.
Liz Palika, an award-winning author and dog obedience instructor, began Love on a Leash in San Diego to introduce the concept of pet provided therapy to the community. Like the Delta Society, this organization provides training, evaluation and certification for therapy pets and their owners.
For many years Palika visited care facilities with her rescue cat, Flea. Flea, too, was born to be a therapy cat. “He liked people, rode in the car nicely, was in charge of all the dogs and handled the stress of visiting quite well,” Palika says.
It is the unexpected meetings that are most memorable for a pet therapy team. Palika and Flea walked into an Alzheimer’s facility to find an agitated gentleman. He was upset by the therapy dogs and told their handlers in no uncertain terms that dogs belonged outside. Palika asked him if he liked cats. “He held out his arms. A big smile lit up his face while he very gently cuddled Flea to him. Then he told a staff member that if cats were coming here to visit, he’d stay. Flea and I visited him weekly until he passed away, six years later,” Palika says.
Palika stresses therapy cats must be able to tolerate unusual circumstances. She believes only cats who show the temperament, aptitude and patience to do this work should be chosen.
I don’t think Sammy and Rocky have the temperaments to be registered therapy cats because they are a little skittish around new people and unfamiliar locations. But they provided the most loving, comforting care I have ever received. The reassurance of their purrs and their paws kneading against my chest told me they wouldn’t leave me until I was well again. What better demonstration of unconditional love could there be than that?
For further information on therapy cats contact:
The Delta Society www.deltasociety.org
Love on a Leash – Pet Provided Therapy, P.O. Box 4115, Oceanside, CA 92052, www.loveonaleash.org
Hand-in-Paw, 2616 7th Avenue South. Birmingham, AL 35233, 205.322.5144 www.handinpaw.org
In New Mexico contact www.NMwarmheartsnetwork@yahoo.com.
Nancy Marano is an award-winning author who is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.