While dogs are the best-known therapy animals, cats can help humans who are ill or stressed, too, by promoting relaxation and healing. Therapy cats visit nursing homes, hospitals, courthouses, and schools (some colleges organize therapy animal visits as stress-relief during exams). Therapy visits may also be referred to as animal-assisted interventions (AAI).
While therapy cats do not have the specialized training of service animals, they do need to have proper training and socialization to ensure that the humans involved are safe and that the cats themselves are comfortable and enjoy the experience. Many facilities require therapy animals to be certified by a therapy organization and covered by liability insurance. Two national groups that evaluate and certify cats and provide insurance coverage for therapy visits are Pet Partners (www.petpartners.org) and Love on a Leash (www.loveonaleash.org).
“The temperament of a potential therapy animal is the most important element,” says Elisabeth Van Every, Communications and Outreach Coordinator for Pet Partners. “A good therapy animal must genuinely enjoy interacting with new people and be comfortable with new experiences. Be sure your cat genuinely enjoys meeting new people and new experiences.” The ideal therapy cat is friendly, calm, gentle, and patient. She should be comfortable with people of all ages and sizes, as well as strange noises and smells. Reactive cats who are startled by loud noises or sudden movements often are not good candidates for therapy work.
“Handlers who think their pet is a good candidate for therapy animal work can get started by acclimating their cats to being on harness and leash and to travel,” says Van Every. Cats must wear a harness with a leash during therapy visits. “They can also work on taking their cats to a variety of pet-friendly locations, such as parks and pet-friendly businesses, gauging how they do with new experiences and contact with new people, along with how they react to the presence of dogs, since therapy cats are likely to encounter therapy dogs in the course of visiting. Get them comfortable with lots of petting and touch,” she advises.
It is imperative that therapy cats be healthy, clean, and well-groomed to prevent spreading parasites or infectious agents. Make sure that your cat is comfortable with being brushed and bathed, as well as having her nails trimmed to prevent accidental scratches.
Your cat may be the star of the show, but you are her manager. “Build a really strong bond with your cat,” advises Van Every. “Your cat will trust you to advocate for them when you’re making therapy animal visits, and your ability to know their moods, reactions, and body language will serve your cat well in making sure they and the clients are safe and everyone enjoys the visits.” Your cat’s well-being should always be your top priority as a handler, as a stressed cat can be unpredictable and less effective for providing comfort to clients. When training or doing therapy visits, you must pay attention to your cat at all times, even when you are chatting with clients.
As well as knowing your cat’s needs and moods, learn and follow the policies and protocols of the therapy organization that you represent, and the rules of the facility that you are visiting.
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It is possible that you and your cat may fail a therapy evaluation. If this happens, consider what you can do to help yourself and your cat be better prepared next time. “Typical reasons we see for cat teams to have difficulty during evaluation are general nervousness (remember that the handler can communicate their nerves to the cat), discomfort with petting by multiple people or poor recovery from unexpected noises, reaction to the neutral dog, and lack of proactive handling,” says Van Every.
While it can be frustrating, keep in mind that these evaluations and procedures are in place to protect both your cat from being put in a situation she can’t handle and your clients from potentially being harmed by a scared cat.
Some cats just aren’t cut out for therapy work—and that’s OK! Allow her to stay home and do the things that she enjoys. If having a therapy cat is your dream, keep traits like friendliness and calmness in mind when picking out your next cat.