Therapy Cats: Can Your Cat Become One?

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Senior man with tabby cat in his garden, Therapy Cats: Can Your Cat Become One?If you have a very laid-back cat, you may wonder if he or she can become a therapy cat, helping others benefit from the benefit of interacting with a loving pet.

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.

This where therapy cats come in. They can offer companionship and love in hospitals, old age homes, and other facilities where patients need them.

But how does one go about this? And what can you expect as the cat owner? We’re here with some answers.

Do cats make good therapy animals?

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.

How Can My Cat Become A Therapy Cat?

Volunteering your time and your pet is a fantastic contribution to places like hospitals and schools. Therapy cats can help people find their happy place. But not all cats or owners are cut out for this starring role. If you want your cat to become a therapy cat, you should contact an organization such as Pet Partners or Love on A Leash to see if you and your cat meets some basic requirements.

You and your cat are a team. You’ll have to be evaluated by an organization before you and your cat can be certified.

Tips for therapy cat owners

An old woman holds a therapy cat in her lap

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? Make sure Kitty is safe by keeping her in a secure carrier on the way to and from the nursing home. When inside, make sure all doors and windows are properly shut. If Kitty freaks out over something, you want to be able to recover her.

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.

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.

Do Cats Know When You Are Stressed?

Some people view cats as aloof animals. However, long-time owners can tell you this isn’t the case with most felines. Cats can sense our moods through our facial expressions and other cues. A sad or stressed facial expression like a frown is a cue to cats that something is wrong with us. Our pet will respond based on the emotions we express.

Disabled military service member holding his cat in a wheelchair to help with the feeling of anxiety or depression

In a study published in the journal Animal Cognition, cats had different responses to their owners when they smiled versus when they frowned. The emotional response was much more positive from a cat when their human was happy. In the same study, cats were indifferent to a stranger’s smile and frown. They exhibited the same behavior toward the stranger.

Our stress level will impact our cat’s stress level. Cats pick up on our emotions even before we realize them ourselves.

Read more: How to tell your cat loves you

Can A Cat Help With Anxiety Or Depression?

The relationship between a human and an animal like a cat forms a strong bond. Cat owners, like other pet owners, are happier when they are around their feline. For most of us, we consider our pets to be part of the family. Cats bring us joy and unconditional love. A pet can help us push away a feeling of anxiety or depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) calls it “the pet effect.”

Our cat helps us establish a routine and feel secure in our lives. Pets give us emotional support and demonstrate that they are interested in us. Cats also reward us with positive behaviors like sitting in our laps and purring. We humans feel connected.

Can You Have A Cat As An Emotional Support Animal?

A cat with ESA vest

An emotional support animal (ESA) provides comfort and support to their owner. The relationship between a pet and its owner can alleviate anxiety or depression. It’s common for dogs to be ESAs. However, cats are just as capable of providing emotional support. Cats are easy to take care of and don’t require a lot of energy or physical ability that some other animals might need. Cats will give you the genuine affection you need to ease your mental state.

Under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, cats as ESAs are protected. This protection means your cat can live with you anywhere and can fly with you in a carrier in the cabin of airplanes. The US Service Animals organization can guide you through the process of registering your cat as an ESA.

Your cat is there for you to pet and cuddle. It’s up to you to decide if you need to register your feline as an ESA. Keep in mind though if you plan to travel or move to a residence that doesn’t allow pets, you’ll want to consider registering your cat.

Can Therapy Cats Help People With Autism?

There isn’t a lot of research on the topic of therapy cats and people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, some studies support the relationship between children with ASD and cats as positive. Frontiers in Veterinary Science published a study that revealed cats might be a preferred pet for kids diagnosed with ASD. In Frontiers’ research, families responded that cats were affectionate with their autistic children. In most situations, a child connecting with a pet provides a calming environment.

What’s A Therapy Cat Vest?

An ESA cat vest is like a harness but crafted from a soft material designed to sit on your cat’s back. The vest secures around your cat’s waist, behind the front legs. These vests usually have a D-ring attached so that a leash can be secured to the vest. According to the online site ESA Doctors, emotional support animals, like cats, aren’t required to wear a vest.

That said, here are a few reasons why you should consider outfitting your cat with a therapy vest:

  • While in public spaces, you might want to keep your cat on a leash. Vests with D-rings enable you to attach a leash easily.
  • When a cat wears a therapy vest, it’s a visual indicator for people not to approach. The therapy vest acts as a sign that your cat is a support animal, not just a pet out and about.
  • Some vests can are available with patches or straps labeled with “emotional support animal” or “ESA.” The printed words are a visual cue for other people to respect your cat’s space.
  • Some vests have pockets that can hold your cat’s identification information as well as your contact information. The vest with your information will help reunite you and your cat if you get separated.

Shopping For A Therapy Vest

When shopping for a vest, make sure that you measure your cat’s girth. Vests come in many sizes, and you don’t want it to be too tight for your pet.

Here are some excellent product choices to consider for your ESA cat:

Vest with patches and a D-ring

The vest comes in different sizes and colors to suit you and your cat. Three patches are available, including one to identify your cat as an ESA. And the handy D-ring is also there so you can attach a leash with ease.

Customize your vest with this option on Amazon.

Therapy vests aren’t just for dogs

When shopping for a cat therapy vest, you might need to look for those marketed towards dogs. The vests that fit smaller dogs are a good option for your cat. We recommend you measure the neck and belly girths of your cat before you order.

This vest on Amazon comes in smaller sizes.

Therapy vest patch accessory

You can also find accessories for vests that help identify your cat as an emotional support animal.
This patch features the acronym ESA. It’s a removable rubber patch that can attach to any therapy vest.

Click here to find this patch on Amazon.

Therapy vest tag accessory

A metal tag printed with ESA and a medical alert symbol can attach to your cat’s vest, harness or leash.

Click here to find this tag on Amazon.

Cats and dogs are the commonly recognized emotional support animals that you will see wearing vests. While therapy vests aren’t limited to cats and dogs, the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act might be.

Comments? Leave them using the form below. Questions? Please use the cat forums for those!

2 comments on “Therapy Cats: Can Your Cat Become One?

SweetiePie1 April 15, 2020
Excellent article and the timing is absolutely spot on.
geodevos April 7, 2020
My cats, all four of them, are therapy cats, if only for me. They do such a good job of it I wish I could share them with more people.

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