Therapy Cats: Sharing the Love

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Ask any number of cat owners about the benefits of petting or snuggling with a cat and the responses will likely be the same. Cats provide their own brand of unconditional love and comfort. They help us relax and cope with the stresses of life in a special way.

When our feline friends run to greet us after a long day away, it affects us physically. Many studies have shown that having a cat can calm nerves, lower blood pressure, help prevent and treat cardiovascular disease, cancer and chronic pain, strengthen the immune system and even help you live longer. One researcher even suggests that those who own pets tend to be happier in general than those who do not.

Our cats give us unconditional love and sharing that love with others in need can be a special gift. One way to do this is by having your cat certified as a ‘Therapy Cat,’ one that provides love, comfort and confidence to people who are shut in, lonely or sick. Once a cat has been certified and approved as a Therapy Cat, it can visit people in certain types of facilities along with its owner — usually in hospitals, nursing homes or schools.

By interacting with people or by simply purring or being petted, Therapy Cats often work miracles. They have been known to help significantly combat a variety of physical illnesses, as well as anxiety disorders, depression, loneliness and developmental disabilities. A visit from a Therapy Cat is always a welcome treat.

In hospital settings, Therapy Cats have been credited with providing distractions so that nurses can more easily perform medical procedures on pediatric patients, encouraging stroke patients to perform physical therapy exercises with extra diligence and even bringing people out of comas. Patients afflicted with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease have been known to suddenly begin speaking again after spending time with a Therapy Cat.

If patients are initially shy or hesitant to speak, a Therapy Cat with a festive accessory or costume, such as a vest or tiara, sometimes makes a difference. Seasonal pet costumes have also been known to spark memories and can give strangers common ground to get conversations going.

Meet Hope, Glitter and Niko
Hope, a friendly Calico Exotic feline in Maryland, is one Therapy Cat that always spreads smiles wherever she goes.

In recent months, Hope has made numerous hospital visits to a an elderly woman, a serious accident victim that was hospitalized for eight months of re-habilitation, an elderly pastor afflicted with ALS, several cardiac patients and a gentleman who was 103-years-old. Hope also cheered a hospitalized heart patient and ‘helped’ deliver a Christmas dinner to her. The patient missed her own cats at home and she still talks about how Hope’s visit made her whole Christmas holiday.

Hope is also known as ‘Beauetchere HopeUDance of Perzot,’ her CFA registered name, and she maintains a full show schedule. Shirley Peet, Hope’s owner, says that she and her husband David originally got Hope when she was born in May, 2000 and planned to start an exotic breeding program. Hope’s list of awards over the years includes: CFA 5th Best Cat in Premiership 2007-2008 show season, CFA Best Exotic at CFA-IAMS Cat Championship Madison Square Garden in 2007; 4th Best Cat at The CFA International in Atlanta 2008, and 1st runner-up for CFA Idol at AKC-CFA Meet the Breeds in NYC 2010.

“Hope has been the best Therapy Cat for us that anyone could imagine,” says Peet. “She loves everyone, is very playful and enjoys going everywhere with me. She thinks our Chevrolet conversion van is the ‘Hope Mobile’ and that I’m her driver. When Hope sees car keys jingling, she knows that a ride to ‘somewhere’ is in her future. I use a large pink enclosed feline stroller for Hope and she enjoys going out visiting and being pushed around outside. She loves to watch birds, seagulls, ducks, bunnies and bugs and the occasional trip to PetSmart. Whatever flies in her path seems to entertain her.”

“Just watching the faces of patients when they see Hope or when she jumps on their beds, you realize that it makes them feel much better, even if only for a little while,” Peet shares. “A smile goes a long way for all of the patients that Hope visits.”

Glitter is another therapy cat that brings joy to others. Originally owned by Maureen Kramanak and Patti DeWitt, Glitter is a Bombay cat living in Missouri, also known as GC, BW, NW ‘Shadowland’s All That Glitters.’ He has been IAMS Ambassador Cat, and in 2004 was the highest scoring cat at the prestigious Cats New York Show, as well as the CFA International Show, held in Houston Texas.

An unfortunate eye injury prevented Glitter from completing his “Campaign to Best,” but he still became a CFA National Winner, finishing as Ninth Best Cat, in 2005. Yet, Glitter hasn’t let a handicap hold him back. Since then, Glitter has become Kramanak’s pet and a registered Therapy Cat with Pets For Life, Inc., based in Kansas City. Together they visit and greet senior citizens in assisted living facilities, school children and thousands of cat show spectators each year.

Glitter also participated in a special ESL (English as a second language) school program, where children practiced their oral reading skills. The children were more comfortable learning their new language in front of Glitter, a patient listener, who never made fun of them when they made mistakes.

“Although we never will quite know how high Glitter may have finished in his show career,” Kramanak says, “he still managed a Top Ten National Win in only 22 shows. Today he’s happy, healthy and excels at being my “BFF” (Best Feline Friend). He also enjoys watching “Court TV” whenever possible!”

Claire Dubit, and her husband Bob, own Niko, a certified Tonkinese Therapy Cat that is active in CFA events. “A local group called Pets on Wheels (POW) certified Niko for his therapy work,” Claire says. “His POW certification allows him to work in nursing and assisted living homes and also with autistic and other disabled children.”

Therapy Cats must be Healthy, Calm and Tolerant
Dubit points out that Therapy Cats must be very calm and tolerant around other people and dogs, as well as being handled and held frequently by others. They must also adapt easily to medical equipment, wheelchairs and unfamiliar noises.

Several requirements were necessary before Niko could be certified. “First, he had to obtain a veterinary certificate, ensuring his good health,” Dubit says. “Then, an assigned veterinarian observed Niko in a room of other people and dogs. The veterinarian also handled Niko, held him upside down, rubbed his tummy and observed his tolerance level for being handled, for a period of over five minutes. It was then determined that Niko had the right personality to earn his certification.”

Niko’s visits focus on nursing homes and working with autistic children. “He really enjoys working with children because of the freedom to go from child-to-child,” Dubit says. “In working with these special needs children, the goal is to ‘bring them out of their shell’ and get them to communicate more. We usually work in small groups of four or five children at a time, as they take turns petting him. It is truly rewarding to watch the children begin to speak more each week, first about Niko and then about other things. Since Niko shows in the CFA Household Pet category, we always share the rosette ribbons he has won with the children. That always sparks more conversation about how Niko did and the children love taking the rosettes back to share in the classroom.”

How does a Cat Become a Therapy Cat?
There are many groups that certify cats as Therapy Cats, all with their own requirements for certification. One that is commonly mentioned is the Delta Society, a national not-for-profit organization that strives to help people live healthier and happier lives. They rely on individuals, foundations and corporations for their financial support.

The Delta Society provides resources for healthcare, educational and other professionals so they can learn how to safely and effectively incorporate therapy animals into their practices.

Volunteer training and screening for visiting animal programs are key offerings by the Delta Society, along with a comprehensive library resource center.

At the heart of all Delta Society programs is a research foundation which underscores the many health benefits of therapy animals. They also maintain the only national registry that requires volunteer training and screening of animal-handler teams.

Other Types of Support Animals
Therapy Cats are only one type of feline support animals. They should not be confused with other types of support animals, as defined by federal and state laws. The Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Technical Assistance Center offers these distinctions:

  • Service animals are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Emotional support, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, train or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the handler’s disability. It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal.
  • Emotional Support Animals or Comfort Animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan as therapy animals. These animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression and certain phobias, but do not perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. They do not have special training to assist the person’s disability like service animals.
  • Therapy Animals are not legally defined by federal law, but some states have laws defining therapy animals. These animals provide people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning as well as being a motivation tool. They are not limited to working with people with a disability. Federal laws have no provisions for people to be accompanied by therapy animals in places of public accommodation that have “no pets” policies.

A Cat is Medication without Side Effects
Cats can be considered a type of medication for the human soul, with positive results and no side effects. The role of cats in therapeutic processes continues to amaze researchers and medical professionals, as we learn more and more about their impact on human lives and healing.

The countless stories of those who have benefitted in some way from a Therapy Cat’s touch catch our attention and inspire us all. The French Renaissance thinker, Montaigne, summed up best the special bond we enjoy with cats: “When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?“

If you’d like to explore having your cat certified as a Therapy Cat, contact The Delta Society through their website: www.deltasociety.org

 

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