by Elisa Black
Animal Assisted Therapy dog - photo added by Michael (Admin). Dogs are more commonly used in this field. Photo by Sirelroka
A therapy cat owner who visits the elderly and terminally ill is a remarkable individual who provides a service not many can emotionally handle. I would like to inform all cat lovers of the service they provide and how to join this elite group of caring cat owner’s who share their love of cats with those who need it most.
A recent story in USA Today about the passing away of therapy dog Theigh reminded me of this great service
Last year I had the privilege to experience firsthand the benefits of therapy animals on the terminally ill. My oldest friend spent the last two weeks of his life at Rainey Hospice House in South Carolina before losing his battle with cancer at the age of 51. I was with him almost 24/7 and the therapy pets came in several times a week. This was a rewarding experience for the staff, patients and family. Cat therapy has been shown to boost the moral of all involved.
I’ve been familiar with therapy animals for several years and thought it a new concept in caring for the sick and dying. As it turns out the Quakers(1) first used therapy animals with the mentally ill in the mid 18th century and received positive feedback. Florence Nightingale(1820-1910)(2) was one of the founder’s of modern nursing and prescribed pet therapy as part of patient care.
Dogs and pet therapy have been a common sight for many years. The need for cats to be trained in cat therapy has grown for several reasons. Many patients who see dogs used in therapy specifically ask if a cat is available. Others miss the purring and the sweet calm feeling that only comes from petting a purring cat. Documentation can be found that verifies petting a cat lowers blood pressure, reduces anxiety and depression, hypertension and loneliness in Alzheimer’s patients, the elderly and the terminally ill(3). I’m sure all cat owner’s agree with this 100%. I would like to stress that research shows cat therapy doesn’t work on people who dislike cats.
Therapy cats are also being used on children with emotional/physical problems. These cats face the same risk of tail pulling and rough petting but the cat must be understanding enough to overlook this.
A therapy cat must undergo extensive training and meet several criteria before introducing it into a facility with immune system challenged patients. First all vaccines must be up to date and routine exams done to insure the cat is extremely healthy. Two sites available for cat owners interested in becoming therapy cat owners can find more information at the Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy (at www.fppt.org) and the Delta Society at www.deltasociety.org. One therapy cat owner began by using a figure-eight collar/leash and a cat carrier. She began by going thru the motions of an actual visit and used her family and friends to accustom the cat to different situations the cat would face once certified. A cat may obtain a ThC degree by successfully completing a 50 hour course volunteering in elderly/social visits.
The best breeds for therapy cats are the American Shorthair, Abyssinian and Somalis(4). A cat should be at least one year of age and pass both physical and psychological tests. The therapy cat owner may also have to undergo a training course along with the cat. Studies show cats are less startled than dogs to the many sounds heard in a health care facility such as a PA intercom, wheelchairs and IV poles. They are also tolerant to the not always gentle unsteady hands of those they visit. Any cat that can adapt to being held/petted by many different people in a crowded room would make a good candidate.
Once the therapy cat candidate has passed all criteria and received certification the owner should research the care facility. Keep in mind that both the safety of the patient and the cat are top priority. Learn the layout and speak to the administrator or activities director. It is best to first get a list of patients interested in receiving a visit because some may be allergic and some may simply not like cats. It is advisable to start with short visits and preferably visit the same time of day so your cat settles into a routine.
And take a box of tissues just in case your eyes start leaking.