Therapy Cat Series: New Therapy Adventures for Rainy and Me

Since Rainy became a certified therapy cat in May, we’ve continued to expand our training, visits, and related activities.

This past June, I attended an eight-hour hospice training session at Tabitha Health Care Services. The training introduced me to the histories of Tabitha and hospice. I also learned about other topics including: regulations, client care, communication, death and dying, bereavement, and volunteer services. Andy brought Rainy in the afternoon so that she could meet members of the hospice team.

The idea of hospice can be traced back to the fourth century AD, when religious orders opened their doors to pilgrims, the elderly, and the seriously ill. The word “hospice” itself comes from the Latin word “hospis” (meaning “host” and “guest”), and the word used to refer to a place of shelter and rest for the hungry or weary traveler.

The modern hospice movement, which focuses instead on providing specialized care to dying patients, was founded by Dame Cicely Saunders. She created the first modern hospice, St. Christopher’s Hospice, in London. Later, during a visit to Yale University in 1963, her lectures launched the development of hospice care in the U.S. The first modern hospice in the U.S. was founded in 1974. Currently, more than 1.65 million Americans and their families are in hospice care.

Tabitha Health Care began in 1886 as an orphanage. In 1907 it became a hospital in 1907. Then in the early 1960s, under the direction of Martha Maseman, Tabitha began to expand to home-based services that would eventually include hospice. Volunteers are an integral part of the latter, including animal therapy teams.

Animals have been used for therapy as far back as the 9th century. One of the first records of an established animal therapy program is of a farm in Belgium, which treated people with disabilities in part by having them work with farm animals. In the 1700s, an asylum in England recorded positive results from encouraging its residents to work on a farm on the asylum’s property. Later, in the 1800s, Florence Nightingale observed that animal companionship reduced anxiety and stress for both child and adult psychiatric patients. While her findings opened the door to the use of animals for therapy, Boris Levinson is considered the father of pet therapy. In 1964, after discovering that the presence of his dog had a positive effect on helping his young patients communicate, he coined the term “pet therapy” and brought the concept to the attention of the international medical community.

Today a wide variety of animals provide comfort and companionship to hospice clients. Rainy and I are proud to help meet that need, especially after hearing the statistic that 50% of people in nursing homes never have visitors.

This past July, Rainy and I started our hospice visits at Tabitha. It’s been a learning experience. Patients can interact with a therapy animal by watching the animal play with toys and perform tricks, interact with an animal by feeding and grooming it, or simply enjoy the animal’s presence while talking with a visitor or watching television.

Some patients have wanted Rainy to sit on their lap. Unfortunately, despite Rainy’s friendly personality, here’s where she struggles. Rainy loves to rub against patient as a greeting but sitting laps is another story.

Cat therapy handlers have offered me ideas for encouraging Rainy to sit on a resident’s lap. One suggestion was to use a basket, but Rainy showed no interest in the basket I bought her; it’s now been claimed by her oldest sister. Another suggestion was a cat bed. Cat therapy handlers noted that a bed would have additional perks such as extra comfort and protection. Unfortunately, the bed hasn’t increased her lap time either. A third suggestion was a blanket, and it’s with this we’ve had the greatest success. I’ve trained Rainy to stay on a blanket on the floor, and at times she’s generalized that to stay on the blanket when it’s placed on a patient’s lap. Sprinkling catnip on the blanket has helped too.

In the meantime, Rainy has learned to sit beside a patient. In this position, she’s at times been so comfortable she’s fallen asleep!

Another experience that’s been new to our therapy visits is that of meeting family members. While the patient’s happiness and comfort is the primary goal of hospice care, caring for the patient’s loved ones is also important. Sometimes family members are just as much in need of the comfort of a therapy animal as are the patients. A therapy animal can also lower anxiety levels, reduce feelings of sadness, and improve family members’ overall outlook on life. On one visit, I invited members of the patient’s to work on tricks with Rainy. They got a delight out of interacting with Rainy and watching her perform. On another visit, I encouraged family members to feed and groom Rainy. They were interested to know what I fed her and how she reacted to having her teeth cleaned and her nails trimmed. It thrilled me that Rainy was able to bring a little happiness to people who were going through such a stressful time.

This past July, I attended an afternoon R.E.A.D. training session given by Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs. R.E.A.D. stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs. The goal of the program is to improve the literacy skills of children by having them read to dogs—or, in Rainy’s case, a cat Three other handlers were in attendance. None of us brought our pets, although maybe we should have, because at the end we were all required to take an exam and could have benefited from the comforting presence of our pets. Thankfully, we all passed!

One in four American children grow up without learning to read, and this is one reason that the R.E.A.D. program began in 1999. Sandy Martin, a registered nurse and board member of the Intermountain Therapy Animals, was motivated to create R.E.A.D. when she learned that 21% of children who can’t read by the end of fourth grade will end up on welfare or in prison. Research shows that children with low self-esteem are more willing to interact with animals than people. Children of course find it more fun to read to animals, and animals don’t laugh at or correct a child’s mistakes The R.E.A.D. program uses registered therapy animals that have been trained and tested for health, safety, skills, and temperament. Teams work with children in libraries, schools, and many other settings . Although the R.E.A.D. program started with dogs, it now includes cats and other companion animals.

Rainy and I are proud to be one of the 3,000 R.E.A.D pet therapy teams throughout the world. As a book lover myself, I’m excited for us to have the opportunity to encourage children to discover a love of literature. As additional perks, the program will allow me to draw on both my graphic design and education background, as the R.E.A.D manual recommends that handlers create booklets and other materials such as bookmarks that feature their pets. In addition, even though the idea of the program is for the children to read to animals, the handler might still offer reading support, except to phrase it as if the animal needs help. For example, I could say, “Rainy was confused by that word. She’d like you to explain it to her.”

This past spring, Rainy and I undertook one more therapy-related venture: We created an Instagram account for her, which now as over 50 followers. Her account description says: “Follow my adventures in therapy, agility, and other fun stuff that my mom and I do together. See photos of my sisters too.”

As you can tell, I’m a proud pet mom of Rainy. This is one reason that my husband designed two cat therapy shirts for my birthday gift. Another reason is that the shirts can serve as walking advertisements for cat therapy in general, and Rainy specifically. Even though cats are the most requested therapy animal after dogs, only 3% of all therapy animals are cats, and therefore more are needed. If your cat likes people and could be trained to use a leash and visit new places, and if you can spare time to bring happiness to others who need it, please contact me at allisontalkspetsATgmailDOTcom or I-CAT.


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