Therapy Cats 101

If you enjoy the company of cats, you probably already know how good they are for your well-being. Did you know that therapy cats can benefit the emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing of people of all ages in all situations? They can assist people in nursing homes, retirement centers, schools, community centers, to name but a few.

Our youngest cat, Rainy, is preparing to embark on the therapy cat adventure. When we first adopted her, training Rainy to be a therapy cat was the furthest thing from my mind. Instead I started out training her in obedience and agility. While Rainy proved a natural, I soon discovered that these skills were generally reserved for dogs. I then looked for additional ways to engage her, and it didn’t take me long to decide that Rainy was well-suited for therapy work. Our veterinarian agreed, signing the required evaluation form, and describing Rainy as: “social, inquisitive, and sweet”.

What kind of cat make a good therapy cat? Therapy cats would benefit from knowing the basics of obedience: come, sit, stay, down, leave it. As with therapy dogs, therapy cats must be on a leash while ‘on the job’. They should also be comfortable with traveling in a carrier and/or stroller. The bottom line, however, is they must have strong socialization skills. Although they don’t have to be as outwardly affectionate as a dog might be, it’s important that they show some signs of friendliness. In addition, they must be comfortable meeting new people and visiting new places.

Therapy cats are born, not made. They either have what it takes or they don’t, If they don’t, no matter how much training you do, you won’t change their innate personality.—Dana Lesnick Gray

If you’re able to check the above off your list, you and your cat have made a good headway to becoming a feline-assisted therapy team, but you’ll still need to get certified. Unfortunately, for Rainy and me, there aren’t any local cat therapy training programs. The national Love on a Leash program has agreed to certify us if we successfully complete ten one-hour visits supervised by an activities director. This means Rainy and I are essentially having to prepare and train ourselves. But thanks to social media, we aren’t completely on our own. I found a fabulous Facebook group, International Cat-Assisted Therapy, whose members were more than willing to answer my numerous questions. What follows is a summary of those talks. Thanks to Terri Jennings and everyone else who offered advice.

Some therapy cats take more time to feel comfortable in a new environment, just go slow and figure out what their preferences are. That’s why it’s important for therapy cats to feel that their carrier and stroller are their safe place. No matter where you go, no matter what happens around you, the cat has a sanctuary.—Terri Jennings

How did you get your potential therapy cat used to going out in public and visiting strangers?

  • Local pedestrian trails.
  • A walk around the neighborhood, except this might hold more distractions.
  • Pet stores. People are more likely to react to your cat. A pet store might also provide safe exposure to a dog.
  • Cafes with outside seating that welcomes pets.
  • Local stores that welcome pets. One lady took her cat to a Home Depot and sat in the patio furniture area with a sign on the table saying, “Therapy cat in training. Please come say hi.”
  • Visits through the drive-through windows at fast food places. The lady who suggested this said that both her cat and the service workers loved the visit.

You must be alert and proactive in public. If you don’t like a dog’s body language, ask the owner to keep a comfortable distance. (Explain that kitty is “in training” and you don’t want her overwhelmed.) Be prepared: some people think it’s funny to freak out your cat or will be annoyed that your brought a cat to a “dog place”.—Terri Jennings

How do you prepare for a therapy visit?

  • Trim nails. An alternative is using claw caps, but these might not fit all cats. Trimming nails will reduce the chance that your cat will snag clothes or accidentally nick someone’s skin.
  • Groom with a favorite comb.
  • Clean ears and eyes.
  • Wipe down with non-alcoholic wipes so that no one needs to worry about litter box dust.
  • Wash the bedding inside the stroller.
  • Dress in harness.

What do you bring to a therapy visit?

  • A blanket dedicated to therapy trips.
  • Water in case either you or your cat get thirsty.
  • A stash of treats to reward your cat.
  • A small jar of baby food and a plastic spoon so the patient can feed your cat. The lady who suggested this said, “residents got such a kick seeing a cat in a stroller and eating baby food!”
  • Toys so that students and patients can interact more with your cat.
  • Grooming supplies provide another way to interact with the cat and count as physical therapy.
  • A bottle of hand-sanitizer for people to use before and after they pet your cat.

Do you have any pointers for novices? (These answers were given by Terri Jennings.)

  • I don’t allow people to pick up my therapy cat. I hand him to people and say, “This is how he likes to be held” or I place him on their lap and say, “This is where he likes to be petted or scratched.”
  • If I need to leave a person/situation/crazy dog, I say, “Oh dear, kitty needs a litterbox. Please excuse us.”
  • Always be aware of people and animals around you to prevent inappropriate interactions (grabby/rough people or aggressive/excited dog) with your therapy cat.

How did you pick the first place to visit?

  • Any place that will accept a cat.
  • Nursing home/convalescent home. Neither of these require your cat to be comfortable with children.
  • Memory care visits.
  • Publicity events for shelters.

Janiss Garza elaborated by describing the variety of places she and her cat Summer have visited. “We visit hospitals two to three times a month. She is awesome with bedridden patients and children. In addition to hospitals, we visit college campuses occasionally when they’re in session, and we’ve also been to a special education school and a boy’s home. Also, our organization sometimes takes parts in events—local fairs and, most recently, a benefit held by a doggie day camp–and Summer often goes to those.”

How often in the week do you go? And how long is each visit?

  • Once a week.
  • An average of one hour per visit.
  • No more than two hours per visit.
  • Limit of 6-8 people per visit.

Why the limit on visits? Because any longer and a visit can become overwhelming to a cat. The top priority should always be giving your cat an enjoyable experience. Experienced therapy cats can quickly become in high demand and so you should advocate for your cat by setting guidelines and limits.

My non-therapy cat is wonderful with people and enjoys going outside in the stroller, but cannot handle the noise in a Care Center. She focuses on the distractions not the people. My therapy cat could care less about distractions and focuses on the people. Both had the same training.–Dannie Sayers

Now that you’re experienced in cat therapy, would you do anything different?

  • If a facility says “NO CATS,” they may change their minds after meeting a therapy cat and seeing him in action.
  • Don’t rush your cat when with a patient. Both appreciate quality time together.
  • Take your cat out regularly from the start. Janiss Garza explained, “It’s kind of a pain taking her out—it often turns a 20-minute errand into a 45-minute one—but it’s good exposure for her.
  • Integrate therapy visits as part of your cat’s routine. Why? Because cats thrive on routine!

What challenges did you face from the public?

Terri Jennings kindly emailed me a list of challenges to expect with having a therapy cat.

There are several challenges specific to therapy cats. A lot of facilities and animal assisted therapy groups that welcome therapy dogs do not accept therapy cats, so it’s important to provide accurate information for therapy cats to gain wider acceptance.

ALLERGIES: A legitimate concern, as about 15% of US population is allergic to cats AND/OR dogs. A simple safety precaution is to ask each person if they would like to meet your therapy cat. Also, all therapy animals are cleaned and groomed before each visit, which helps reduce allergens.

BITING/SCRATCHING: All therapy animals are required to pass a behavior and temperament evaluation before obtaining therapy animal certification. Animals that bite or scratch do not pass.

DISLIKE OR FEAR OF CATS: Again, a simple precaution to ensure the comfort and safety of people is to ask if they’d like to meet your cat before approaching them.

SOME THERAPY DOGS REACT NEGATIVELY TO THERAPY CATS: When a therapy dog reacts negatively to a therapy cat it is at risk of losing its certification, which is understandably upsetting to therapy dog handlers. A simple solution is to schedule separate visits to accommodate sensitive therapy animals.

FEW GROUPS HAVE THE KNOWLEDGE OR EXPERIENCE TO EVALUATE OR TRAIN CATS: Since most therapy animals are dogs, that is where most resources and training are directed. International Cat Assisted Therapy (ICAT) is an on-line organization created by therapy cat handlers to provide information and support specific to therapy cat teams, therapy cat training instruction, and guidance through the certification process.

THE MISCONCEPTION THAT CATS CAN’T BE TRAINED: When using appropriate motivation and training techniques, training cats is not much different or more difficult than training dogs.

THE MISCONCEPTION THAT CATS CARRY DISEASES AND/OR PARASITES: Most therapy cats are indoor only and so are exposed to fewer diseases and parasites than therapy dogs that go outside several times daily.  Also, therapy cats are tested and treated for diseases and parasites just like therapy dogs.

How have you educated the community about therapy cats?

There are certainly challenges that a feline-assisted therapy team can face, but there are also a lot of rewards. These mostly positive experiences are often posted about on blogs, one of the easiest ways to educate one’s community about therapy cats.

What are some of your memorable cat therapy moments?

Summer and I were at one of our regular hospitals and a bedridden, older man wanted to see her. I put the sheet down over him and placed Summer on the bed by his side–our usual routine. She immediately snuggled next to him, purred, and made what I call “happy paws” (some people say kneading or making biscuits). The man began sobbing. He had a 20-year-old cat that he missed desperately. I never did find out if the cat was alive and at home or had passed. But he continued to sob for a long time. The amazing thing was Summer’s reaction: she leaned in and kneaded even more insistently and purred even louder to comfort him.—Janiss Garza

A couple of weeks ago, on our usual rounds through a convalescent home, I saw three staff members trying to calm an agitated patient so that they could change her bandages. The patient kept trying to get out of her room until she saw Baxter, then she stopped struggling and said, “Oh sugar, come and see me!” We went into her room and she quickly calmed down. It took about 10 minutes for staff to change her bandages and we spent another 10 minutes with her after that. She cried when she told us all about her two cats at home, and how she wanted to get home to them. She was smiling when we left, and all three staff members chased us down later and thanked us.—Terri Jennings

Kokoro & I as a team volunteered for about four years. Kokoro is a purebred ragdoll. He’s also a very silly boy. Even though we no longer go out in public he brings humour and joy to my 85-year-old mom who lives with us. Mind you she doesn’t even LIKE animals! I catch her talking to him and pointing out to me funny things he’s doing.—Michel Tilford

After talking with members of the International Cat-Assisted Group, I’m more excited than ever for Rainy to become a therapy cat. We’ve already been working on her social skills, using ideas given to me by group members. When we begin our supervised visits this fall, we will do so with some measure of confidence, thanks to the advice we’ve received. And it’s reassuring to know that I have experts whom I can lean on as more questions arise. Stay tuned for more articles in the Cat Training (aka Agility) series.

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14 thoughts on “Therapy Cats 101

  1. We admire therapy cats and therapy dogs for all the good things they do to help people. Our friend, Summer, is a therapy cat and blogs about her therapy adventures. Unfortunately, none of us are therapy cat material. The mom should have started training us when we were younger.

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  2. It was really interesting reading about therapy cats as Mr. N is certified and has done some therapy work . Some things are similar to dogs but there are some additional things to be aware for cats. We haven’t run into any therapy cats on visits, just pet cats.

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  3. Therapy cats are often, I think, a vital part of recovery for patients because patients are reminded there is a world out there waiting for them. I realised, from Janiss and Summer, that it takes dedication and study to become an officially accredited therapy animal and admire Rainy for taking it on – Good Luck that kitty

    * High paw from us at Dash Kitten *

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    1. Whether Rainy or I end up being successful as a therapy team, we’re enjoying the process. It’s deepened our bond, broadened our training knowledge, and taught us respect for therapy animals.

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  4. I know it must be difficult not having a training organization close by, but at the same time, everything you’re learning from this fantastic variety of people is pretty exciting! I love the idea of putting a sign out to tell people what you’re doing with your cat. That’s brilliant and such a simple solution to any stares. I can’t wait to see more pictures of your therapy cat training process.

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    1. Thanks for your visit! If you know anyone interested in training their cat to become certified as a therapy cat, do let them know about International Cat-Assisted Therapy.

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  5. I’ve looked into getting my cat Sophie certified as a therapy cat. She has the perfect temperament, and everyone always loves her. I need to get the ball rolling on that! I look forward to reading more about Rainy’s therapy cat progress!

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