A Health Ally: Therapy Cats

Mental and physical benefits of therapy animals now outweigh the fear of disease transmission. Heres how these pets can make a big difference.


Therapy cats are now appearing in greater numbers at hospitals and senior care facilities. Some cats are brought to the facilities in planned visits, while others permanently reside there. And their presence is now demonstrating that their therapeutic value outweighs any outdated concerns about health risks to patients.

Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, veterinarian and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, feels that people’s worries about “cat germs” are largely unwarranted. “The chances of a person catching any serious disease from a healthy, pre-screened, vaccinated therapy cat are infinitesimally small,” says Dr. Dodman.

He points out some relevant facts: Cat urine is actually sterile, unless a cat has an active bladder infection. Unless a cat is carrying salmonella or campylobacter bacteria, their feces are harmless, as well.

And cats are known for cleaning themselves thoroughly and immediately after using the litter box. “If people are concerned about getting toxoplasmosis from a visiting cat or its litter box, that cat can be easily tested for toxoplasma,” says Dr. Dodman. “If it’s not present, there is no problem.”

Many zoos have improved

Dr. Dodman notes that fears about germs have affected zoo animals as well. “At one time, zoos housed big cats and other unfortunate animals in cages with concrete floors and metal bars and basically nothing inside, so that those habitats could be easily hosed down,” explains Dr. Dodman. “The common belief was that it was essential to keep the cages sterile. The resulting psychological damage to the big cats was enormous, manifesting in pacing and other repetitive, self-destructive behaviors.

“The zoos were psychologically damaging these animals for no good reason,” he continues. “Fortunately most zoos — and many people — have now gotten over this irrational fear of germs. Zoos are now attempting to create more natural, jungle-like habitats for their big cats, complete with fish-stocked ponds, soil and trees.”

Similarly, therapy animal programs are part of a larger movement — the Eden philosophy — which promotes the “humanization” of institutions like nursing homes and hospitals by creating on-site gardens and allowing resident animals. Risks from therapy cats can be minimized by making sure a visiting cat is screened in advance for both temperament and health, says Dr. Dodman.

“A veterinarian can check urine and blood samples, and make sure the cat’s vaccinations are up-to-date. And people who are allergic may simply opt not to have the animals enter their rooms.”

On the other hand, notes Dr. Dodman, therapy cats can bring out the best in ill, unhappy or stressed people, such as those in hospitals and other institutions.

“It gives these people something else to think about, particularly if they participate in caring for the cat,” says Dr. Dodman. “Therapy animals can also help autistic kids make breakthroughs. As well, people who have regular contact with such pets have been found to make fewer doctor visits per year.”

Various health benefits

And cats are apparently good for the heart in more ways than one. According to Dr. Dodman, “The very act of stroking a cat lowers human blood pressure.”

“I believe the increased acceptance of cats in public areas is due in part to our increased knowledge about the psychological benefits of interacting with them,” he says. “Rules should not be so over-arching that they eliminate the possible benefits for many in order to prevent slight risks to a few.”

One famous cat who lived in a Rhode Island nursing home made national news for his habit of curling up with people who were about to die. “No one knows how the cat knew this — perhaps it was the warming devices such as hot water bottles and electric blankets designed to keep the dying person’s temperature up, or a certain odor, or a learned behavior derived from knowing that person would soon be surrounded by others who were likely to bestow positive attention upon this cat,” hypothesizes Dr. Dodman. “But regardless of the mechanism, this cat brought so much comfort to so many.”

Says Dr. Dodman: “In France and Britain, it is common for pet owners to bring their pets into restaurants. And in some big cities in Japan, people actually pay to go into designated cat-petting centers where they can spend time among the cats. As an added benefit, they meet and socialize with other like-minded people.”

Now, there are a handful of eateries in the United States that have followed suit — and these are all examples of places that have gotten over irrational fears about animal germs and are now reaping the rewards. —Catnip staff


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