Initially, dogs were the go-to animals when it came to animal-assisted therapy (AAT). There was, I think, this mistaken notion that cats wouldn’t be good at it — that they would squirm, scratch and freak out in general.
Fortunately, that notion has fallen by the wayside, and cats are coming into their own as furry therapists. A couple of my friends are in the process of getting their cats — one of them a three-legged rescue with the unfortunate name of Legolas — trained to be pet therapy volunteers.
Therapy cats help all sorts of people. For elderly people like Bunny, they provide stimulation and non-threatening contact. They stimulate seniors’ mental faculties and help them recover more quickly from illnesses. One study conducted in nursing homes in New York, Missouri and Texas showed that AAT resulted in patients’ medication costs dropping an average of 69 percent.
Then there are children and teens with autism and other disorders. Cats seem to be able to unlock the person trapped within by sheer virtue of their quiet understanding.
Obviously, certain cats are better suited to AAT than others. Jake, a handsome ruddy Abyssinianbelonging to writer-photographer-cartoonist Coco Koh (The Daily Abyssinian), took to it like this was the work he’d been born to do. Abys are generally pretty sociable cats, and Jake has a sort of Cary Grant charm and aplomb.
He has been a therapy cat since September 2010. Koh got him certified through Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society), the oldest AAT organization in the country.
She herself had to take two eight-hour classes to learn “how to read your animal’s body language, how to behave around sick/elderly/mentally handicapped individuals, and how to deal with situations like someone wanting to keep your animals.” The instructors even touched on Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws.
“To be a therapy animal,” Koh explains, “a cat needs to be sociable and like people, but they also have to be calm and not easily startled. They need to be immune to loud noises, people yelling, other animals (dogs in particular), and unusual machinery and equipment (and the sounds they make), and they need to be comfortable in a strange environment. Having the stroller helps a lot because it’s a piece of ‘home’ in the middle of a strange space.”