Nothing can stop the constant juggling of classes or the approaching deadline of finals, but a therapy cat just might alleviate some of that mounting stress.
Wendy Panaro is a therapy cat handler who, with her cat Dexter, has visited every campus in the Milwaukee metropolitan are at least once over the past eight years. She pointed to three ways that cat therapy visits help students.
A major benefit of therapy cats is they reduce stress. One student made it clear to Panaro how much the cats had calmed her when she told her, “I have a final in an hour and I don’t even care.”
A second benefit is that students often miss their own animals at home, so therapy pets serve as a reminder of what is waiting for them.
There may be a delayed third benefit for some who are especially taken with the friendliness of the therapy cats. Panaro explained, “Some students say how they want to get an animal once they are in an apartment or graduate.”
Two other cat handlers gave a fourth way therapy cats can benefit students. “Some people are cat people and appreciate that we’re there for them,” said Jenny Litz, who has visited Western Washington University with Smokey or Tye for the past six years.
“There are always some who are clearly cat people and dogs don’t do it for them, as far as stress relief,” elaborated Janiss Garza, who views visits to campus with her cat Summer as a mini-vacation.” It’s a different energy. Not as noisy or boisterous as dogs can be. And not as icky-slobbery either.”
Whatever their benefits, therapy cats are popular on campus. Cheri Cox and her cat, Chico, got their start as part of a Partners in the Community event that focused on college destress for finals week. She said that they were such a hit that now they visit every winter and spring.” Another local college heard about them and requested a cat. The two have now visited two campuses twice a year for the two years they’ve been certified and visited one a third time for a mental health day.
At Western Washington University, which both Sarah Morr and Litz have visited, students know ahead of time what therapy animals will visit and when they’ll arrive. Both handlers say that they always have students waiting for them even before their scheduled visits.
Elizabeth Albrecht, whose therapy cat campus visits are arranged by Pet Alliance, said that her last visit with Mac to the University of Central Florida in September 2017 was particularly memorable. “It was right before Hurricane Irma arrived,” Albrecht said, “and the students were stressed out with midterms coming up along with a major storm. He got lots of love that day.”
Students aren’t alone in appreciating therapy cats. “The librarians loved Raul,” said Morr, “and made sure to stop me on my way in and out of the library, so they could fawn all over him. I also had a few professors stop by because they had to see a therapy cat. They all seemed delighted to hang with him and asked questions.”
Ellen Vogel has been taking her two cats Cadi and Vivo to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the past four years, and she too found that everyone loves therapy cats. To ensure they could continue to come, when the staff realized that Vogel has arthritis they made special parking arrangements for her to minimize her walking.
The staff at the University Central Florida are so fond of Mac, said Albrecht, that they showered love on him by bringing him treats and catnip toys, and by setting him up in a room with his favorite YouTube channel playing on the wall-mounted HDTV mounted.
Other interviewed cat therapy teams concurred that faculty reaction is always positive. Some professors express surprise at seeing a therapy cat, but then they become curious and ask about how they’re trained.
“But the events are meant for the students,” said Panaro, “so the faculty seem to be aware not to monopolize the time of the animals so that the students get the benefit.”
Administration at various campuses favors cat therapy too. “Western Libraries has always thought they’ve been a great addition,” said Connie Mallison, Assistant to the Dean of Libraries at Western Washington University, where for the past six years pet therapy has provided stress relief to students during Dead Week and Finals Week. “The teams have been great, and we look forward to working with them on this very successful program for many more years to come.”
Pet therapy during Reading Days and Finals Week was equally welcomed at UNC, although the program isn’t without challenges. Stephanie Willen Brown, director of Park Library, a department in the School of Media & Journalism, reported three challenges: coordinating multiple volunteers, especially those who work during the day; finding parking space; and regulating who brings animals on campus.
The staff of the libraries at both schools faced the problem of some faculty, staff, and students thinking that because therapy cats were allowed, their pets were too. The assumption, explained Mallison, is that because therapy dogs and cats are allowed, personal pets can also be brought in.
To resolve the issue, WWU regularly spreads the word that the libraries welcome only trained service animals. UNC administration has chosen to terminate its therapy cat program. Brown said, “We loved them! We’d love to have them come back!”
Therapy cats can benefit the emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing of people of all ages in all situations. Although pet therapy began in the mid-1800s to aid in the long-term care for the sick and the chronically ill, therapy pet teams these days bring comfort to people in retirement centers, libraries, community centers, and school campuses, to name a few.
School life will always have its highs and lows. Especially during the lows, therapy cats meet a need, as demonstrated by Cox’s list of favorite moments: “One student cried. She had a rough final and she sat by me for a long time petting Chico. Several [students] were afraid of cats and were very intrigued by a ‘nice’ cat. Another student said she had never touched or held a cat and was thrilled to hold Chico. Several [students] got teary and talked about missing their own cats. One guy had an emotional support cat in his room that he told us about.”
It’s because therapy cats bring comfort that they’ll continue to visit campuses. On Albrecht and Mac’s very first visit to the University of Central Florida, they were greeted by multitudes of students wearing cat ears. Upon the recent sudden passing of Mac, Albrecht was overwhelmed by the number of sympathy cards she received from UCF employees and students. Mac had touched a lot of lives, including those of students, who had found school life a whole lot easier to cope with thanks to a therapy cat.
If your cat enjoys people and is comfortable with unfamiliar places, please consider cat therapy. For more information, please email me at allisontalkspetsATgmailDOTcom and/or join I-Cat.