This February, Rainy and I will start cat therapy visits! To ensure we’re ready, I’m making a to-do list and checking it twice. Thanks to members of the Facebook group, International Cat-Assisted Therapy (I-CAT), whose advice helped me craft my to-do list.
Back in the fall, when I first contacted the manager of the seniors’ home we’ll visit, she had questions for me. She wanted to know when we could start, what day and what time would work best, how frequent and how long visits would be, and whether we wanted to start in a common room or with one-on-one visits. After a brief discussion, we decided I’d start in February. December would be too busy because of the holidays, whereas January wouldn’t. Also, a visit from Rainy in the new year could be a great morale-booster for those who didn’t get to spend time with family in December. Based on advice from I-CAT members who said that novices should start slowly and not overwhelm themselves, I suggested one-hour weekly visits. As for whether to start with a group or with individuals, one needs to know their cat to make that decision. Although our veterinarian accessed Rainy as “social, inquisitive, and sweet,” I’ve observed that Rainy needs time to acclimate to new people, places, and situations. My instinct is that Rainy will more quickly adapt to meeting strangers one-at-a-time.
Having someone who is familiar with (and to) the residents is really nice for the first few visits, until they recognize you as Rainy’s person. Also, that way you can have help if someone decides they want to get a little overenthusiastic and grab or hold on tighter to (or want to keep) Rainy.–Karen Thompson
With February almost upon us, it’s my turn to have questions for the director. Rainy’s first ten visits must be supervised for her to receive her certification, so I need to ask the director if this can be done. I-CAT members also advised that I ask for a list of the people who would most likely want or need a visit from Rainy. This will give me a place to start. On subsequent visits, people can be added or subtracted as needed. At the same time, I-CAT members said I should be flexible, because even those who say “No” initially might change their minds once they see me visiting with others.
Pop your head in the door and in a sunshiny voice ask if anyone might be interested in a visit from a therapy cat. These folks often feel like they’ve lost control of their lives and will say “no” out of reflex, because this is something they *can* control. Be patient, have your chit-chat ready, and open-ended questions, and you’ll be amazed at the stories just waiting to spill forth from some people!–Dana Gary
In discussions with I-CAT members this past fall I had asked about the best ways to prepare for visits, and learned of a few needed supplies. Those include:
- Nail Clippers: to trim Rainy’s nails and reduce the chance that Rainy will snag clothes or accidentally nick someone’s skin
- Carrier/Stroller: for transportation
- Harness & Leash: to provide me with control over Rainy and keep her safe
- Blanket/Basket: to provide a safe space for Rainy and protect residents from germs and/or claws
- Non-Alcoholic Wipes and Sanitizer: to protect from litter dust and germs
- Grooming Supplies: to provide a way to interact with Rainy and count as physical therapy
- Treats/Food: to reward Rainy for good behavior and give seniors the opportunity to feed her
When I began volunteering at a new organization, we got a stroller. This was easier than a crate, because we’d sometimes have to cover several floors (and even though he’s small for a ragdoll, he’s still 12 pound).–Michele Tilford
With February drawing close, I started to think specifically about the first visit, and this prompted some follow-up questions for I-CAT members. I wanted to know whether experienced therapy cat handlers preferred a carrier or a stroller. The consensus is that a carrier often works best for transportation to and from the facility being visited, but that a stroller often works best for the actual visits. One handler said that she put the carrier into the stroller during a visit. When her cat would try to get into the carrier, this signaled the handler that the visit was over.
I also wanted to know whether people/cats preferred a cat bed, blanket, or basket. Based on feedback, beds and blankets make it easier for cats to snuggle with a patient during a visit. A basket is a different story. Dannie Sayers informed me that “a cat navigating the laps (tummy sizes and knee positions) is always a challenge.” For that reason, if the lap looks too difficult to navigate, Dannie will keep her in his basket.
I can’t imagine not having a basket. The basket is in the stroller. All I have to do is lift him out while he is in the basket. The basket provides more and easier options when Tino is placed on a lap or an edge of a wheel chair. He also feels more secure in the basket if the resident is a little awkward while petting. Tino lets me know when he wants the blanket over the basket by stepping out of it to sit on a lap. Towards the end of the visit, he is tired and he usually stays in the basket.–Dannie Sayers
Finally, I wanted to know what type of brush I-CAT members recommended for therapy cat visits. X advised me to buy a Love Glove, a mitten that has soft plastic bumps on it. “I’ve found that people can be rough but, if they are rough with the Love Glove, it won’t hurt Rainy. Most brushes have metal or hard plastic which can hurt.”
Throughout my preparations, my focus has been training Rainy as a therapy cat and finding a facility for her to visit. I never thought about my role as a handler until my most recent conversations with I-CAT members. They suggested that I come prepared with stories about Rainy and questions for the people we visit. Stories could include where I got Rainy, funny “facts” about her, and her favorite things to eat and do. Questions could include: Did they have a cat growing up? What was the cat’s name? Funny things the cat did? Which of their parents liked the cat better? The most important thing is for the questions to be open-ended, as these encourage conversation.
Sometimes you may have to disappoint people who want to see her, but when your cat starts giving signals that they are done–licking lips, ears held funny, looking to get down/away, you need to stop. Assure them that you will be back and they will be at the top of the list next time! Depending on patients moods, energy levels, emotional states, Rainy may be able to visit 8 people one time, but only 3 the next. It’s never an exact science where you can say with certainty how many people you will visit. I have occasionally spent an entire visit with one person who really needed it. Don’t run the risk of turning them off therapy work by overdoing it, watch your cat closely for signals.–Dana Gary
What I like so much about having other handlers to talk with is how much I learn from them. As part of discussing the first visit, the issue arose of how to help cats realize that some people are gentle and quiet while others might be rough and loud. The proposed solution was for me to have Rainy visit with family or friends and “ask them to pet a little on the rough side, be very loud, or even touch her in weird places, like her ears and toes.”
As far as when things don’t go well, just excuse yourself: Rainy needs a bathroom break, you need to get some more visits in, get her a drink, etc.–Dana Gary
The topic of tricks also arose. As anyone knows who’s followed my cat training series, I’ve taught Rainy to accept basic care, be well-mannered, and to do agility. Karen Thompson listed several skills that I hadn’t even considered, such as: settle down, hop up, look at the camera/phone, ask to be petted, soft paws (to use paw pads, not claws), no, yes, go over to ____ (individual, place, or thing), come here, walk with me (a “heel” command for on-leash walking), visit (for visiting behavior in general, to be used when out and about as well as to be used at home when cat is really hyper and wants to sit with a person).