What is a Therapy Cat?
Therapy animals and their handlers, usually their owners, are volunteers trained to assist mentally, emotionally, or physically ailing humans in relaxation, healing and learning. This type of therapy is called AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy). Therapy animals are typically dogs, horses, cats, or rabbits, although other less common domestic species can be registered as therapy animals such as guinea pigs, rats, and birds. Therapy cats are assets in many situations and are used to help children with developmental disorders like autism be more comfortable with the world around them. Therapy cats also pay visits to speech and hearing centres, schools, libraries and hospitals. One population that can benefit greatly from therapy cat visits are the elderly living in nursing homes. Being small, warm and furry cats are ideal therapy animals in nursing homes working with a frail population. For some patients with dementia disorders, cats can trigger fond memories.
What is NOT a Therapy Cat?
A Service Animal is defined as a dog or miniature horse that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are NOT service animals.
A more recently developed legal category of assistance animals is the Emotional Support Animal. These are animals (almost always private pets) that provide companionship and emotional support for people diagnosed with a psychological disorder. They are documented by a letter from a human health professional, which legally guarantees that they may live with their handler and accompany them on aircraft, exempt from the fees that would be charged for a companion animal. There is NO special training required for these animals.
Some people misrepresent their pets as emotional support animals in order to bring them to places where pets are not allowed, to avoid fees, or out of a misunderstanding of the animal's role. There have even been some outlandish misrepresentations that have been in the media recently such as the “emotional support” peacock that was denied boarding in the cabin of a commercial air flight. And the reprehensible case of the “emotional support” alligator that visited a nursing home in Pennsylvania.
Therapy Animals and their handlers are volunteers who are registered with a national or local Animal Assisted Therapy organization and go on arranged visits to schools, libraries, hospitals, and nursing homes. Therapy animals are not service animals or emotional support animals.
What Qualities and Training Do Therapy Cats Need?
Not all cats have the innate qualities that are required for therapy cat work. First and foremost, therapy cats cannot be stressed by the work. It is the handler’s responsibility to monitor their cat’s behaviour and welfare. Therapy cats must enjoy going on visits and therefore must not be stressed when in their cat carrier or while being transported by car. Desensitizing the therapy cat to the carrier and car travel is something that falls under the category of training. Most cats can be trained to love their carriers, and become accustomed to travelling by car. I should mention that I have encountered a few cats that suffer badly from car sickness, and obviously this would make for a stressed and miserable cat.
Therapy cats need to be friendly and relaxed with people of all age groups because you never know who you might meet when you are out and about on your therapy visits. It is crucial that the therapy cat is of a non-reactive personality. Individual cats differ greatly on the spectrum of reactiveness. Some cats are highly reactive to strange noises, odours, and sights. These cats will instinctively flee from situations that they deem frightening. It goes without saying that a highly reactive cat will be stressed by the demands of therapy work, and are not good candidates for the work. On the opposite end of the extreme are the cats who freeze or go catatonic when stressed. Don’t believe that such a cat isn’t stressed just because they aren’t fleeing for the nearest bolt hole. These cats are literally frozen with fear and are not good candidates because they would always be highly stressed and would never enjoy the work. A good therapy cat should be confident enough to handle strange noises and surroundings without fleeing or freezing in fear. Reactiveness is more an innate personality type trait that training will have a limited impact upon.
Therapy cats will be required to wear a harness and leash, mostly for their own, safety while out on therapy visits. All cats, at any age, can become habituated to wearing a harness and leash. Some people mistakenly believe that this can only be accomplished when the cat is a kitten or youngster, but this simply isn’t the case. It is really quite easy to habituate a cat to wear a harness and leash if it is done slowly and the harness is properly fitted. When owners run into trouble it is usually because they have unrealistic expectations of how quickly this can be accomplished and they give up too soon.
It doesn’t hurt to introduce your therapy cat to some basic clicker training either as a way of teaching some fun tricks or to teach welfare behaviour such as staying on a mat, bed or blanket or getting into the carrier. With my own, now retired therapy cat, Van Gogh, I clicker trained him to stay in his little cat bed because some of his therapy work involved being an art model and he needed to stay put in the middle of a table while my students would draw him. This behaviour came in handy on other visits with frail, elderly people who wanted him to just snuggle up next to them and be still.
How Do I Get My Cat Registered as a Therapy Cat?
This is the question I am most often asked when people find out that I have a therapy cat. Depending upon where you live in the world there are likely either national or local organizations that have some type of registration of therapy animals. In the United States, the two biggest national organizations are Pet Partners and Love on a Leash. Some areas may have local organizations as well. I am sure all of these organizations have websites where you can learn more about their particular requirements and what species they will consider for registration.
I ended up researching the requirements for both Pet Partners and Love on a Leash to determine which organization would be best for me and my cat. Sadly, neither organization has many registered therapy cats and both are very dog-centric. There are fewer than 200 registered therapy cat teams in the whole of the United States. Part of the problem is likely that there are fewer cats that meet the innate temperament requirements of therapy animals, but I believe that another part of the problem is that the average cat owner just isn’t aware of the fact that cats can be therapy animals. If therapy registration organizations like Pet Partners and Love on a Leash did a better job of promoting cats as therapy animals the public would become more aware and more cats would become therapy animals. I believe these organizations have a duty to promote other allowed species as therapy animals, but unfortunately, they are doing a poor job so far.
During my research, I found positives and negatives with Pet Partners and Love on a Leash. I really liked that Pet Partners offered more in the way of education and support for the human half of the teams. After all, we are volunteers from different professional backgrounds, and learning about working with differing populations should be part of the training process. I also like that the Pet Partners website stresses that they do accept and register animals other than just dogs. What I did not like about Pet Partners was their evaluation process for cats. Pet Partners requires the handler and cat to attend (in person) an evaluation. Basically, a mock therapy visit. This is problematic for those who live in an area where there are no nearby evaluations taking place. It could mean waiting for months and/or driving a very long distance to attend the evaluation. That seems a bit much to ask of someone who is wanting to be a volunteer. The other, bigger problem with Pet Partners evaluation is that the evaluations are always done by dog trainers who may or may not have any knowledge or understanding of feline behaviour. For me, that is unacceptable and could result in a situation that puts you and your cat at risk of harm.
Love on a Leash also has a multi-step process for registration of therapy cat and handler teams. There are forms for the handler to fill out and a control evaluation that is filled out by the cat’s veterinarian. This form asks questions such as “is the cat comfortable being handled by people other than the owner?” and “is the cat accustomed to wearing a harness and leash?” as well as more health-based questions. Once the veterinary control evaluation is completed the cat and handler team need to complete 10 supervised therapy visits of 1 hour each within 1 year of the veterinary evaluation. It is up to the cat’s owner (handler) to arrange these visits and determine how often they want to go on therapy visits. Love on a Leash provides a form that the supervisor of the visits signs off on. Since this seemed like a far more achievable and realistic evaluation process, I chose Love on a Leash for registration of my therapy cats. Once the supervised visits are completed the handler sends the paperwork in, along with an admin fee the team is registered. The one thing I really have an issue with regarding Love on a Leash is the statement on their website saying that therapy cats have to be accustomed to being around dogs because they will often be doing visits where dogs are also visiting at the same time. This has never happened to me in the five years I have done therapy visits with Van Gogh. Because I am a volunteer, I choose where, when, and how often I visit. I choose not to visit on days when there are other therapy animals scheduled. My cats are not accustomed to being around dogs and I do not trust dogs to be near my cats.
Before starting the registration process with my first Love on a Leash therapy cat, Van Gogh, I was advised to contact several facilities that might be interested in having a therapy cat come to visit. I composed a letter of introduction explaining what I wanted to do and that my therapy cat was “in training” and would need a certain number of supervised visits to become officially registered. The response was overwhelming. Nearly every organization (mostly nursing and rehab centres) responded in the affirmative. I am now at the beginning of this process with my second therapy cat, Edgar, a two-year-old brown European Burmese from Hungary.
Why Registration of Therapy Cats is Necessary
Probably the most important reason to have your cat officially registered with a reputable AAT organization is the insurance coverage provided by the organization. Members of Love on a Leash are covered by two kinds of insurance. The first is a liability policy that covers injuries that your pet causes to third persons (anyone not a member of Love on a Leash). The second is an accident policy that covers injuries that your pet causes to another volunteer of Love on a Leash. Insurance comes into effect (including during the hours of the supervised visits) as long as certain conditions are met. These are fairly common sense and include: you are performing as a volunteer, you are adhering to the rules of Love on a Leash, and you are abiding by the rules of the organization where you are visiting.
Other reasons why registration of therapy cats is important revolves around status. A registered therapy cat holds a certain official status that non-registered therapy pet does not. Most places therapy cats will be going into will be concerned about the health and behaviour of the therapy pet and having your cat registered with a reputable AAT organization will often be a requirement.
Finally, by having your cat officially registered as a therapy animal helps to track how many therapy cats there are registered in your country and worldwide. Ultimately, it will become easier to educate the public about cats as therapy animals and hopefully encourage more cat owners to consider having their own cat become a therapy cat.
Elizabeth Llewellyn is a feline welfare and behaviour specialist with over 20 years experience working with cats in a variety of settings including rescue, breeding, boarding, grooming and veterinary. She lives in Chittenden County Vermont with her three cats.