One of the most common misconceptions about Hand in Paw is that only dogs can become registered therapy animals. While it’s true that dogs make up the majority of therapy animals in our Animal-Assisted Therapy programs, cats are 100% welcome and needed at our organization!
Well, to start, not every person our teams visit like dogs! Some people are allergic or scared of dogs and therefore miss out. Having cats in our program opens the door to making a greater impact by being able to visit even more people – cat people!
Cats can also do something that dogs can’t – purr! A cat purring is one of the most comforting sounds in the world, and the sound has been long associated with a therapeutic healing ability on human bones and muscle.
Cats are great for Virtual Visits! A study by Indiana University Bloomington found that watching cat videos on the internet boosts viewers’ energy and positive emotions while decreasing negative feelings. With Hand in Paw’s in-person visits being on hold due to COVID-19, we have shifted our focus on achieving our program goals through virtual visits. Having more cats in our program would be very beneficial for these video-based visits!
In order for Hand in Paw visits to be safe, effective and enjoyable, our therapy animals are held to a certain standard that we evaluate before any animal is registered in our program. For cats, the main thing we assess is their overall temperament.
We will schedule screenings of potential cat teams as the first step in our onboarding process for volunteers. The screening will be a brief meeting to observe cat temperament, reacting to meeting strangers, and team dynamic. Potential cat teams will be notified of acceptance into our Therapy Team Workshop.
Unlike dogs in our program, cats do not need to know basic obedience skills such as “sit” or “come.” Rather, the main qualities we look for in therapy cats are:
To evaluate these qualities, we role-play a few exercises with the handler and their cat after they have completed our Therapy Team workshop sessions. Here are a few main scenarios cat teams will be asked to demonstrate during an evaluation:
Walking Through a Crowd: The handler will walk with the cat (held or on a leash with a harness) through several people who are conversing, wearing different types of clothing, and may be using medical equipment. This simulates a busy facility environment that teams often encounter. The handler should support the cat and the cat should be calm and comfortable, not showing signs of nervousness or anxiety.
Passed Between Strangers: The handler will pass the cat to 3 different people, leaving it for a few moments of petting and interaction. The cat must not scratch, bite, hiss, or try to jump away.
Stay in Place: The handler will pass the cat to a fourth person and it must stay willingly for 30 seconds. The “patient” will converse and hold on to the cat lightly. The cat must not scratch, bite, hiss, or try to jump away.
Meet Another Team (with dog): The handler will hold the cat while another team with a therapy dog will approach, greet the handler and cat, then walk away. The cat should not show signs of aggression or aggravation towards the dog or team.
Crowded Petting: 4 people will pet the cat at once while the handler holds the cat. The cat should be calm and comfortable during this exercise.
We hope that this blog post has got you thinking about whether your own cat could become a therapy cat with Hand in Paw! If you are interested in taking next steps, please fill out the application on our website! If you have any questions about therapy cats and how to become a Therapy Team, please reach out to our Volunteer Coordinator, Stacey Roudebush!