After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the Boston Athletic Association, which puts on the event, organized a series of therapeutic debriefings for volunteers at a local hotel. Many volunteers had witnessed unbearable human violence as they assisted runners and family members on that terrible race day. They were at risk for post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSD).
So race volunteers sat together in a conference room with mental health counselors and told their stories, what they had witnessed, how they felt. Often, they broke out in tears and went to the restroom to regain composure.
That’s when they saw Jacoby — Jake for short — the Abyssinian cat. And Lily, the mini horse. The unusual pet therapy teams — pets and trained owners — were waiting right outside the conference room. Inside the room, there was a dog therapy team, too.
“As the volunteers shared their stories, it was extraordinarily intense, and many got overwhelmed,” says Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine technician Debra Gibbs (she is Program Coordinator for the Tufts Paws for People program). “Some just broke down, hugged the horse or petted the cat, and just cried and expressed that emotion, and moved on. Some people were so full of raw emotion, so fidgety, you could see them start to relax and breathe better. It was impressive to be part of something like that.”
Tufts Paws for People provided the therapy teams for the debriefings. The non-profit organization serves central Massachusetts. It is associated with the national organization, Pet Partners, which trains and registers each therapy handler/animal team.
Most teams — the vast majority — consist of an owner and a dog. But cats can be therapy pets, too. “One of the great things about being affiliated with Pet Partners is that they are the only national group that allows non-canine animals to participate,” says Gibbs. “Cats are the most second most popular species.” (Other species include miniature horses, chickens, cockatoos, parrots, hamsters, guinea pigs, lamas, alpacas, cows and horses.)
Where cats are best suited
Therapy cats are particularly suited to certain situations, especially with the elderly. The handler/cat teams Debra works with help elderly patients in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, Alzheimer’s units, and hospices. “Some people are fearful of dogs,” says Gibbs. “They ask, ‘Please, do you have a cat?'” One four-year-old therapy cat, which has been blinded since getting a viral infection as a kitten, “likes to sit on laps, and climb up to a person’s chest and run his chin on the person’s chin.”
Animals stimulate memories
Cats are particularly wonderful for helping older people with dementia to access memories. “People suffering from dementia are often socially withdrawn, so if you bring an animal in, especially a cat, it may stimulate memories,” says Gibbs. “Perhaps they needed to leave a cat at home. You may hear, ‘We had a cat.’ Then you can ask, ‘Was your cat as big as my cat?’ ‘Did it have long hair or short?’ ‘What was its name?’ We hear from the staff that after these kinds of interactions, people often stay more social and more engaged after the therapy animal has left.” Sometimes the effect lasts for many days.
Cats during hospice care
Therapy cats can also be comforting towards the end of life. “Cats like to sit on the beds of people receiving hospice care,” says Gibbs. They not only comfort people in their last weeks or days, she says, but also provide “respite for family members.”
While some cats can be wonderful therapy animals, it does take a certain disposition. A good therapy cat, says Gibbs, is “inherently laid back,” used to being handled and picked up, and not overly reactive to abrupt noises. Therapy cats need to be tolerant of different tones of voices, including people with speech or hearing impediments, who may speak loudly. And a therapy cat needs to be tolerant of being touched awkwardly — with some disabilities, some people “may not be able to stroke a cat gently,” she says. If a cat has the right disposition to start with, tolerance in different situations can often be taught.
Therapy cats also have to wear a halter and leash. “You don’t have to walk with it but the cat needs to tolerate it,” she says. Your cat will also need to be comfortable traveling in a cat carrier. “The hardest part of making cats into good therapy animals is getting them used to traveling,” says Gibbs.
If you’re interested in exploring a pet therapy opportunity for your cat, the best place to start is with Pet Partners. They offer evaluation and training. “Cats are easy to evaluate,” says Gibbs. “They’re either going to be good or they won’t. I have three cats at home, and none of them are good candidates.”
How to get started
If you’re interested in finding out, contact Pet Partners to find out about training and evaluation (see sidebar on this page). Before you go, get your cat acclimated. “Go to a pet store, where you can bring your cat in,” suggests Gibbs. “Get your cat used to being petted by different kinds of people.” Many cats are afraid of carriers because they associate them only with going to the vet, she notes. So start taking your cat to different, perhaps more pleasant, places.
Pet therapy benefits patients, but it also benefits handlers — and pets. “I’d be hard pressed to pick which one benefits the most,” says Gibbs. Pets can become more outgoing and relaxed. Handlers get to see their beloved pets bring joy and peace to people in need. As for recipients, a regular pet therapy visitation is often the highlight of the week. — Bob Barnett