Rainy and I have started our therapy cat visits! We alternate between two senior residences, for about an hour each Friday morning. My tote bag is always packed beforehand and ready with treats, toys, blankets, sanitary pet wipes, and camera. The morning of a visit I clip Rainy’s nails and brush a dry shampoo through her coat. When it’s time to head out, I put Rainy’s harness on her and load her into a crate. After we arrive at our destination, I load Rainy into her pet stroller. Then we spend an adventurous morning visiting seniors.
Rainy and I began our visits to one senior residence back in mid-January. Each time, we pick who to visit and how long to stay. We’ve gone four times, and Rainy has continued to improve.
On our first visit, Rainy started out shy but eventually relaxed. When I took Rainy to meet my supervisor, Rainy immediately hid under an office desk. My supervisor and I ignored her while handled paperwork and swapped cat stories. Then my supervisor explained that the cat therapy program would mirror the dog therapy program: The apartment of each resident participating in the therapy dog program has a dog magnet at the top of its doorway. Naturally, cat magnets will now be used to signal which residents would like a visit from Rainy. After we finished deciding the details of our visits, my supervisor gave us a tour of the facility. At one point we paused to visit a cat-loving resident. By this point, Rainy felt comfortable enough to greet people and be petted. A successful start!
My supervisor encouraged us to not rush our progress. For that reason, we made only one stop on our second visit, and it was to the cat-loving resident that we had met previously. At first Rainy just stayed in her stroller while Ann* and I chatted. Ann* asked Rainy’s name and her age. She also shared some of her life story with me. During a lull in our conversation, I gave Ann* treats to entice Rainy out of her stroller and into a chair. Rainy soon relaxed enough that she agreed to perform some tricks. Then she wanted a break and so I took her for a walk on leash in the hallway. When we returned to Ann’s* room, Rainy allowed me to place her on Ann’s* lap and for Ann* to pet her.
It was on our third visit that Rainy showed how comfortable she had become with Ann*. Upon entering Ann’s* room, Rainy jumped out of her stroller, flopped onto the floor, and rolled her scent into the carpet and onto Ann’s* feet. Then while Ann* and I chatted, Rainy lay on a nearby chair and ate treats from Ann’s* hands. At the end of our visit, I took photos of the two.
Our fourth visit did not go as smoothly. Rainy’s comfort level fell when I challenged her by taking her to visit additional residents. Our first stop was a quick one. We started with a lady who had just returned from breakfast and was bundling herself in blankets. She smiled at us and I exchanged some stories with her, but then she drifted off to sleep. The next stop lasted longer. The lady smiled and bubbled with conversation. She used to own a cat and wanted to know everything about Rainy. Despite the allure of treats, Rainy mostly stayed near me. Our last stop was to see Ann*. Rainy snuggled with her while I share photos, but then Rainy hopped into her stroller and turned her back to us. Enough excitement for one day!
Rainy and I began our visits to the second senior residence in early February. Those interested in meeting Rainy sign up for a 15-minute time slot, and the visits take place in a common room. We’ve gone three times, with mixed results.
On our first visit, six residents had signed up to meet Rainy. She mostly ignored the first visitor, preferring instead to explore the room. After that, she amazed me with her aptitude! Rainy seemed to figure out that the residents needed her and that her job was to provide comfort. She sat in the lap of the subsequent residents, let them pet her and talk to her, and gave them her full attention. One of those residents had lost a dog a few months earlier and still felt sad. She talked to Rainy the entire fifteen minutes. Finally, after six visitors and 90 minutes of socializing, I put Rainy back into her stroller for a well-deserved rest.”
Two weeks later, Rainy and I returned. During the first time slot, Rainy again mostly explored the room. After that, in contrast to our previous visit, Rainy remained restless. Her ears perked and her tail twitched at every little sound from the hall or parking lot. Her attention was clearly elsewhere. She even refused to sit with two of the residents. I left feeling as if the visit had been a disaster, and even questioned whether I was making the right choice in asking Rainy to be a therapy cat.
As soon as we got home, I posted my concerns to I-CAT. One member reassured me that it might simply be an issue of maturity. Rainy isn’t even three years old and so is still a “child.” Another member pointed out that it could simply be an issue of experience. Rainy has only been a therapy cat for two months! Several members recommended that I proceed more slowly with Rainy and to not push Rainy to sit in people’s laps. They advised that most residents will be happy simply to pet Rainy, and they suggested that I allow her to stay in her stroller or that I put her in a basket or on a chair. They also encouraged me to take more of a leadership role during our visits. If I’m nervous Rainy will pick up on those feelings. In addition, if I want Rainy to stay close to me, or if I want residents to let Rainy make the choice to sit with them, then I need to communicate this clearly through my words and actions. Members also agreed that I should reduce our outings from 90 minutes to 60, the latter being the average length of therapy pet visits.
To my relief, our most recent visit was a positive one. On our way to the senior residence, I took Rainy to the pet store. I did this so Rainy will associate car rides with all kinds of outings. Then when I set up in the senior center’s common room, I gave Rainy several options of places to lay: her stroller, a bed on the table, and a basket next to the resident. I also loaded up her basket with toys. I did these things to maximize her comfort. The next part of my strategy was to provide each visitor with a dish of treats so that Rainy would view strangers positively. Finally, because Rainy had shrunk back from a man in a wheelchair during our last visit, I initially held Rainy to reassure her but then gave the man a tube of squeezable food. As soon as Rainy smelled it she sniffed his hands and purred. Finally, I explained to each resident that we would respect Rainy’s choice of where to be, whether it was on their lap, in her stroller, or elsewhere. Being curious, Rainy ultimately did explore the table, basket, and even the laps of residents. When she got into people’s laps, I praised her and stayed attuned to her reactions. At the first sign that she felt discomfort, I offered her a break. During that time, I invited her to do tricks with me or simply let her chill out in her stroller.
About nine months ago, I decided to post timely updates about my training with Rainy. I knew this was a risk. We were inevitably going to make mistakes and those less-than-successful moments would be in print for anyone to read. But I also believed that sharing our ups and downs, and what we learned from them, would benefit others. Some might learn from our mistakes, while others might take comfort in knowing that pet training doesn’t require perfection. Stay tuned for future updates and email me at allisontalkspetsATgmailDOTcom if pet therapy interests you.
* Name of resident has been changed for confidentiality.