Friday, July 23, 2010

What Qualities Does a Therapy Cat Need?

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


  1. What a cool cat. While I know that cats can be loving (when they choose to be) with their families, I've never met one who was friendly and trusting of strangers. Much to my heartbreak because to me seeing a kitty means petting and purring and it hurts my feelings when one shies away. I think I'm like the cartoon character who will "love him and hug him and squeeze him" and the animal runs away from my exuberance!LOL

  2. Amazing and wonderful! Thanks for another great article, Julia!

  3. Julia, thank you so much for such a well-written article about my therapy work! *nose kisses*


    Tabby >^..^<

  4. My cat would SO LOVE to be a therapy cat she LOVES car rides, people and attention. If you touch her she starts purring, if you look at her she starts purring, heck if you even think about touching her she starts purring. She is a 7 year old part Siamese part Tabby. The only problem I potentially see is that she is not a fan of dogs and she does have claws so that could be a problem. Any ideas on how to help with her dog issues???


    This is my kitten Jubilee. Sorry, I haven't updated it in a long time, but she's still my therapy cat. I've been working with her steady for about 4 months now, and she's amazing.

    She's just a typical DSH brown tabby my doctor gave me when she was 5 weeks old. I know, it's EXTREMELY young, and normally I'd have a fit at anyone who has a kitten that small.

    She's amazing though, she's been training to sit on my shoulder with a rabbit harness and leash, and in the winter she wears a sweater. In Canada, I can't register her as an actual Working Animal, but she is allowed in certain places as a therapy cat. If they refuse, I have to comply.

    She loves car rides, people, and being at home sleeping. She's not bothered by loud noises, crowds of people or walking down busy sidewalks and streets. She doesn't jump, meow or become hyper when I'm at the bank or visiting shops. She's still a baby, only 5 months old.

    I get stopped a lot, being asked if they can take her picture, pick her up, pet her and so on, and it's hard to tell people that pictures are welcomed, but I limit who can pet her. The reason for that is so she doesn't try to climb up on strangers.

    She's not a fan of other animals, but as long as she's on my shoulder, or in her travel case, she's not bad. I'd love to find a way to socialize her better, but I've tried everything since she was tiny. She's great at the pet store though :)

    Now I just need to try and find a vest that will grow with her, she's outgrown 3 so far. xD


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