Is Your Cat the Cat’s Meow?

Is Your Cat the Cat’s Meow?

Therapy cat and boy

Animal Assisted Therapy has become a familiar term and concept in recent times, with most people envisioning a child reaching for a golden retriever by his hospital bed. Dogs are a unifying, universal healing tool for people of all ages who may be enduring physical or mental health challenges. Trained dogs and handlers are now visiting and assisting people worldwide, not just in hospitals, but also in nursing homes, mental health institutions, detention centers, schools, and courthouses.

Petting an animal, or even just watching an animal, has been shown to reduce stress and lower our blood pressure. Sometimes a certified therapy animal serves as a listening buddy for a child who is learning to read aloud, or as  motivation for a physical therapy patient to walk that extra step. Many times just the presence of an animal can calm us and lift our mood.

As more facilities request Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) services, more types of animals are making appearances. Some organizations now offer rabbits and alpacas!

In addition to AAT dogs, Animal Samaritans is seeking cats for its AAT program.

It takes a truly special feline to partake in AAT. One difference to consider between dogs and cats, is that while dogs tend to focus on the other dogs and humans in their vicinity, cats tend to focus more on feeling safe in a familiar territory.

Some cats are simply not interested in strangers, and may even hide under the bed during the neighborhood card game, for example. In contrast, some cats may want to socialize with humans gathered for a festive party in their house, but this does not assure they will want to  travel to new places outside their comfort zone. Then, once in a long while, you come across that cat who is ready to jump in the car and go meet some new people friends!

Cats that are potential AAT candidates need to not only possess gregarious personalities and an ability to adapt quickly to new environments, but also possess some the willingness to learn basic training commands that will ensure their safety and manageability.

To prepare your cat for AAT work, I recommend the following:  crate training; socializing through exposure with friends, family and neighbors; and transportation training that involves being crated and driven in the car without stress or discomfort. In addition, you should harness and leash train your future AAT cat.  Always attach kitty’s leash to a harness —it is not safe to attach a leash to your cat’s collar. Also, always use a basic leash, and never a retractable lead.

Cats need to be comfortable when picked up in a hurry or stroked in a potentially awkward manner. An AAT cat should possess a relatively mellow temperament and not spook easily by sudden noises or unusual smells.

A tolerance for grooming is also important for therapy cats, as they may need to be bathed and have their nails clipped. Some may even need to wear claw caps (temporary rubber or plastic tips to cover the sharp points on each claw).

Animal Samaritans has numerous criteria for its AAT animals. Whether a dog or cat, the animal must pass temperament testing and a basic good manners evaluation to participate in the program. (All dogs must obtain their Canine Good Citizen certification before participating in Animal Samaritans’ AAT program).

Kind-hearted humans should remember that it takes a very unique animal to not only tolerate, but also enjoy and thrive in a place where AAT visits occur. Even social happy-go-lucky pets may not be comfortable around the sights and smells of a medical building, nursing home, or special needs classroom.

Be honest with yourself about your cat and his or her individual preferences. Perhaps your feline has the right spark, but needs some training, in which case you can confer with a positive reinforcement behavior professional for help.

If your Fluffy has love and friendship to share with others, and a personality that calmly accepts new surroundings, situations, and people, consider involving him or her in Animal Samaritans’ Animal Assisted Therapy program. Of course, AnSams is always looking for more AAT dogs to meet the increasing demands of this popular program as well.

Sara McNutt is the owner and head trainer at The Pet Mentor, offering lessons in dog and cat training and behavior. She is a graduate of the famous Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College. The Pet Mentor can be reached at sara@thepetmentor.com or 760-851-5975.