A therapy cat is a cat that has been trained to assist humans, such as people who are hospitalized or in places of care, by providing comfort and acting as an affectionate companion.
The training that therapy cats go through involves learning how to deal with physically, mentally or emotionally distressed human beings, and how to provide relaxation and relief from nervousness.
Benefits of Therapy Cats
Researchers have discovered that animal-assisted therapies can do wonders for a variety of mental and physical health issues, including depression and anxiety. For example, our bodies release an automatic relaxation response just by simply petting a cat.
Scientists have found that the act of petting an animal helps with the release of important mood hormones like serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin. It is also found that anxiety levels are lowered in the presence of a therapy cat.
Patients that suffered from head injuries or Alzheimer’s Disease reported being able to recall memories better after visits with a therapy cat. There may be other reasons for it, as cat therapy isn’t anything magical, but research tends to prove that it helps.
People that had physical health issues such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease found that their symptoms had greatly lessened.
Children with autism also greatly benefit from the company of therapy cats. Many autistic children feel a deep bond with therapy cats, even more so than with other humans. During therapy sessions, patients that had a cat with them were able to socially interact at a greater level, compared to those without one.
How to Get Your Cat Certified?
Before a cat can become qualified to act as a therapeutic companion, it needs to become certified. In order to accomplish this, it needs to meet some basic requirements. One of the important parameters for therapy cat certification is the cat’s age – it must be at least 1 year old. The cat should also have been under your ownership for at least 6 months.
Your cat’s diet is very important as well. Most certification organizations have a requirement that your cat shouldn’t have a raw food diet, because they have higher risks of carrying bacteria, and will put sick people or those with poor immune systems at greater risk.
Your cat should also be comfortable in a harness and have received all of its shots.
Pet Partners and the ASPCA Therapy Animal Program can help with certification and evaluate whether your cat is suitable to help out in hospitals, nursing homes, classrooms, and libraries. They also offer training and registration for therapy animal teams.
Once your cat has completed the required screening and met the behavior and health standards set forth by the ASPCA, you’ll need to enroll in and complete the Handler Course. After you’ve completed and passed the course, you can schedule a visit with your veterinarian, who will check your cat using a specific health form.
If all goes well, you should be able to proceed with your application for the certification by submitting the required paperwork. Be advised that there may be membership fees to be paid regularly in order to maintain your status as a certified therapeutic helper.
Training a Therapy Cat
The next step is training. There are a variety of specialized skills that therapy cats need to be knowledgeable about, as they will be assisting disabled people and people with mental illnesses. The ASPCA runs training classes on specific dates, with the intention of creating a fun learning environment for you and your cat to learn the skills needed for animal-assisted intervention visits.
The number one factor in training is your cat’s temperament. Cats that are well-suited for the job should act calmly around humans, and not react to barking dogs or sudden loud noises.
During the workshop and training sessions, you may have the opportunity to have a day trip and visit various hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities in order to learn additional skills needed to ensure a safe visit for you and your cat. You’ll also be able to observe an ongoing mock evaluation, and find out the process involved in becoming a member of the Pet Partners team.
There are also certain training steps that you can do with your cat on your own time. Getting your cat get used to new places, faces, and attitudes is the most important aspect.
The second factor is that your cat needs to learn how to walk guided on a leash. It shouldn’t hiss or attack other cats, people or dogs. You can take your cat on a visit to a family member or friend’s house for it to get used to interactions with strangers.
The Life of a Therapy Cat
Here are some of the activities that you can expect for you and your therapy cat to be involved in. Visitations with nursing and retirement homes are the main locations that you can expect to visit, but not all therapy cats will be working with seniors. Some are assigned to help children in schools or in a pediatric therapy setting. You may even be asked to work with occupational therapy professionals.
The most important priority for you is to choose a location that you and your cat are comfortable with. Keep a close eye on your pet and watch for any signs that might indicate that it’s not enjoying the atmosphere.
Every cat has a different time limit, noise, and fear threshold, and it’s up to you to observe its comfort level and provide appropriate adjustment. Keep in mind that strange situations which you haven’t rehearsed for may occur, so be prepared for any eventualities.
Your cat’s body language will provide more clues towards its feelings – whether it feels anxious or afraid. If there are tell-tale signs that are indicating that it isn’t comfortable, don’t feel guilty about ending the visitation or training session.
There are always more days to train, and continuing to push a cat beyond its boundaries can have unpleasant consequences. It may not want to go on with the training, and everything that you’ve done so far will be for naught.