Discussion on the rights of therapy cats

A recent study from Washington State University found “that students who exhibit the big five emotionality trait[s] are especially interested in cat visitations” according to MEDICAL NEWS TODAY. The Big five personality traits are openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism”. “Emotionality” means the strength of a person’s emotional response to stimulus. A high score on emotionality indicates that the person is likely to react strongly to experiences.

ESAs for uni students. Cats are good for students with high emotionality
ESAs for uni students. Cats are good for students with high emotionality. Image: MikeB from 2 images on Pixabay (the cat and the student respectively: Image by Karsten Paulick from Pixabay and Image by Pexels from Pixabay).
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

A high score on emotionality allows people to respond strongly to even small, subtle cues. Domestic cats provide subtle cues and therefore people who are sensitive in this way are able to pick up these cues and benefit more from a visitation by a therapy cat to a university.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) assisting university students

The research, as I understand it, looked at the benefit of the visitation of therapy cats and dogs to universities to help relieve stress in university students.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) have been found to decrease depression in humans who interact with them.

Dr. Hoy-Gerlach, Prof in the School of Social Justice at the University of Toledo in Ohio claims that people with cats “experienced a greater decrease in their depression scores”.

Dr. Hoy-Gerlach states that “More people could be reached with related benefits if cats were more widely incorporated into animal-assisted intervention programming”.

The suggestion is that cats should be used more often as therapy animals provided there are “species-specific guidelines modified for the needs and welfare of cats”.

The long introduction supports the idea that domestic cats can be useful ESAs and they should be used more often.

Cats’ rights and consent

Dr. Dennis Turner of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology in Switzerland appears to have been asked by MEDICAL NEWS TODAY to comment on this. And he is clear. He said: “I must say that I am not at all in favor of a cat visitation program on a university or school campus as suggested here. This, as opposed to neighborhood cats, which themselves visit the university grounds.”

Dr. Turner believes that modern trends support the idea that one needs to allow the ESA “choice and consent” in what to do. Dr. Turner doubts whether a cat can provide consent although they can be trained and habituated to do certain things.

And he also points out that one needs to look at the possible stress in the therapy animal. The program is meant to destress and improve the mental welfare of the human but what about the ESA? What are their rights in this and how do they feel?

Dr. Hoy-Gerlach agrees that a cat ESA visiting universities needs to be “very outgoing and comfortable with new people and okay with travel”.

On the issue of consent, I think that this is a red herring. You’re not going to obtain the consent of a domestic cat to be an ESA and visit universities. Any consent that a domestic cat provides comes from their human caregiver. Cats are not able to give a rational approval of their use as therapy animals.

So, I think Dr. Turner’s point is that cats should not be used as therapy animals. And the same would go for dogs. If they can’t give consent, he is saying that they should not be used and as they never can give consent they can never be used. That’s the logical conclusion.

And what about the rights of cats and dogs under the circumstances? I think the key there is to make sure that the cat has the right personality and is fully socialised to the work at hand. That means that they are relaxed meeting new people and going to new places.

In ensuring that, you are ensuring that their rights are respected. Cats’ rights can only be enforced through their human caregiver. This puts the onus on the human to make the right choices. At present cats do not have free-standing rights as humans do.

In respecting cats’ rights in this way, arguably the lives of therapy cats are improved because the work of a therapy cat is very stimulating for the animal. If they are relaxed in the kind of environment that they must work in, then I would argue that their lives are improved in being an ESA. On this basis, their rights are not infringed. And they would give implied consent.

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