Written by Sandra Murphy
It's a well known fact, at least among pet lovers, having a cat calms your nerves, lowers your blood pressure and helps you live longer. It's a reason to get up in the morning when you'd rather stay in bed, an exercise excuse you can live with and downright entertaining. As we get older and could use the company, pets are less likely to be in the home. Concerns about tripping over a sleeping cat or getting scratched overrule what we know—we love having our animals around.
Therapy dogs are a common sight in nursing homes, hospitals and special needs schools. Therapy cats are less common but often requested by an activities director—"Do you have a cat you could bring? James loves cats and he's been so down in the dumps lately, it would really cheer him up." Therapy cats know who needs a purring cat nearby even when hands are not as gentle or steady as they used to be.
Dogs are obedience trained and then therapy trained. Most organizations require a dog to be at least one year old before starting to visit. The rules for cats vary. Cats should become used to traveling in a crate, being in unfamiliar places, handled by strangers and be comfortable around dogs starting at a very early age.
Cats are less likely to startle over a wheelchair or IV pole than dogs so concentrate on your cat's people skills. One way to begin is to visit a facility and study the layout. Listen for odd noises like the PA system squeaking, being too loud or the lunch trays bouncing as the cart rolls over tiled floors. There may be balloons from a party or children visiting Grandma. Your cat should be comfortable in all situations.
Always use a harness and leash. A collar can be grabbed and twisted—a harness won't choke your cat before you can untangle clutching hands.
Your priority is your cat's safety. Activities directors, aides, teachers—their responsibility is the resident, patient, child. Ask for someone to accompany you while visiting. If a resident falls, it is not your place to try to get them back into a wheelchair. You are not trained. Get your cat (and yourself) out of the way and let the employees take care of any problem. In the car, your cat should be crated for her safety and yours. Have your cat microchipped.
When you are visiting room to room at a nursing home, how will you handle your cat? Crystal, a silver Persian who visits the mental health unit at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, California, rides in style in her own enclosed stroller. It protects Crystal against over-enthusiastic visiting children and gives her a comfortable ride too. Visiting is hard work for pets so an enclosed place for a time out is recommended.
Keep your visits short at first—thirty minutes or less. As your cat gets used to the facility, extend your time gradually, up to an hour. The facility will try to talk you into longer visits but, as always, your first priority is your cat's well being.
Residents like a reminder of your visit. Print business cards for your cat and hand them out—Crystal's cards would say "Crystal, ThC, e:sv" for instance. This says she is a therapy cat (ThC) and has earned an advanced degree by doing fifty hours of volunteer visits specializing in elderly people, social visits (e:sv).
If your cat will wear a scarf or hat, a little vest, or tiara, it's a sure attention getter. Make costumes seasonal—it will spark memories. It's hard to strike up a conversation with a stranger but a holiday scarf or fireworks vest will give you a place to start.
Working in a hospital or nursing home can be stressful. Doctors and nurses look forward to a visit as much as patients and residents. Be sure to stop by the nurse's station to say hi and ask if anyone needs a special visit or should be skipped that day.
Nursing home residents may ask to hold your cat. For all concerned, it is best for you to hold and let them pet her. An easy solution that preserves the resident's dignity is to have your cat's special blanket along. Put the blanket on the resident's lap and then, holding the cat, put her front paws on the blanket. If your cat jumps, the back claws won't touch the resident.
Therapy cats just don't get the recognition they deserve—but Crystal's working on it.
For more information on therapy pets, go to www.loveonaleash.org, www.deltasociety.org or your local Humane Society. Crystal passed a temperament test and did ten hour of visits to qualify as a therapy cat. Her good looks, of course, come naturally.
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