Friday, July 23, 2010
By Julia Williams
We recently introduced you to therapy dogs Stitch, Riley and Sophie, sponsored by CANIDAE. Inspired by their heartwarming story, I began to wonder if there was such a thing as therapy cats. I didn’t really think so, given that my feline friends have all been “scaredy-cats” who run and hide from the vacuum cleaner (aka, the “suck monster”), the Fedex guy, and pretty much all visitors except a chosen few. It turns out there are lots of calmer, more courageous kitties who aren’t afraid of strangers or noisy places, and these are the ones who make good therapy cats.
I’ve recently become acquainted with a delightful therapy cat named Tabitha, or Tabby for short. Tabby’s human mom, Karen, graciously gave me some information on the qualities a therapy cat needs and how to get started. I thought I’d pass them on, in case you have an outgoing feline and you’re interested in training them to be a therapy cat volunteer. I’d really like to do this myself, but I know my three kitties (bless their hearts), would make terrible therapy cats.
First though, let me tell you a little about Tabby. She just turned five and has been doing animal-assisted therapy for about a year. She’s a tabby cat of course, and lives in Vancouver, WA with Karen, her husband Scott and four other felines. Tabby loves human attention and being petted which, along with her calm demeanor and sociable nature, make her well suited to therapy cat work. Tabby likes attention so much that at home, she demands it from her humans all the time (that sounds like my cat Belle!). During her therapy cat training, Tabby even invented her own way of asking for petting – by sitting down and tapping people with one paw.
Karen trained Tabby using the evaluation criteria of The Delta Society, regarded as the top training/certification program for Animal Assisted Therapy. Tabby isn’t certified yet, but she will be very soon. In the meantime, the plucky feline is getting lots of paws-on experience as a therapy cat. How did that come about? Karen spoke with the director of an assisted living facility about Tabby and her training, and they agreed to meet her. Tabby naturally charmed everyone during her first visit – and the rest, as they say, is history!
Karen takes Tabby to the facility so she can visit with people who have severely limited mobility, dementia, Alzheimer's, and other ailments that make it hard for them to interact with people. Tabby also goes to a nursing home and an extended care facility at the request of a resident’s family. No matter who she visits, Tabby always brings them a great deal of comfort and joy.
Before she began her therapy cat training, Tabby learned to wear a harness and leash, and ride in a cat stroller. During visits, the cat needs to be controlled somehow, and a leash is the best way. Karen said it’s not essential that the cat learn to walk on the leash, but people do enjoy seeing it. In any event, a harness and leash will keep the cat safe should they be startled by something and try to run away. If you’d like to leash-train your cat, this article gives step-by-step instructions.
To get Tabby used to strange settings and new experiences, Karen takes her to dog parks, offices, and stores that allow pets inside. Therapy cats should be even-tempered, outgoing and not afraid to meet new people. They shouldn’t growl or hiss at people, cats, dogs or other animals. Said Karen, “You can train them for the specifics, but if they aren't calm then no amount of training will be enough.” Most Home Depot stores allow pets inside, she said, and they’re a perfect place to acclimate the cat to loud sounds, beeping equipment, carts (akin to wheelchairs in a facility setting), and being petted by strangers.
Not all therapy cats work with the elderly; some work with children in schools or pediatric therapy settings, and some work one-on-one with occupational therapy professionals. It’s important to choose a setting where you and your cat are comfortable, and pay attention to what your cat is telling you. Every cat has its own time limits, noise threshold and comfort level in strange situations. Watch your cat’s body language for signs of anxiety or fear, and end the training or visit when your cat tells you it’s time. You can always train more another day, but pushing your cat beyond their tolerance level will result in them not wanting to continue.
You can read more about Tabby’s therapy visits on her blog, Furry Tales of the PDX Pride. Tabby writes about her exploits so descriptively that it feels like you’re right there with her, visiting the patients and experiencing everything she does. Being a therapy cat is hard work, but it’s also very rewarding. I tip my hat to Tabby, a therapy cat extraordinaire! I can tell she loves her “job,” and she brings joy to so many people who really need it.
Read more articles by Julia Williams