Dogs have long been recognized as Service Animals in assisting individuals who are physically challenged. Examples of these service animals include seeing eye (Guide) dogs, hearing ear dogs, and wheelchair assistance dogs. Rarely have cats been recognized as assistance animals. Although cats have been found in Nursing Homes and Well-aged facilities as pets, interacting socially with residents, they have rarely been selected specifically for therapy. More often, they are feral cats, living in the area, rescued from animal shelters, or dropped off by well meaning individuals. Although these animals can make effective social pets, guidelines need to be established to assist health care providers with criteria to choose appropriate cats for therapy programs.
Pat Gonser, owner of Kintoi Cattery, in conjunction with Pets and People: Companions in Therapy and Service is working to establish criteria for the selection of therapy cats. Kintoi Cattery is best known for their American Shorthairs. Pat has also bred Abyssinians and Somalis. These breeds have been specifically selected for temperament and companionability. Pets and People, began as a concept in 1991, and incorporated as a not-for-profit in Mississippi in 1994. Pets and People currently uses 8 cats in their animal-assisted therapy programs. In order to qualify as a Pets and People therapy cat, a candidate must:
- Be at least one year of age, before being selected for the program. This provides the facility with the knowledge that the cat has been effectively socialized, is friendly, and is comfortable interacting with numerous people in a crowded setting. Additionally, a cat's immune system is more stabilized but this age. Older cats are less likely to become ill when exposed to various hospital borne microbes.
- Be fully inoculated. This includes routine inoculations as well as feline leukemia and rabies. This requirement insures that the cats are healthy.
- Pass a veterinarian's health screening assessment. This also verifies the animal's health.
- Participate in a feline specific temperament test.
- Be specifically home socialized to various situations including, if possible, dogs, other cats, loud noises, crowds, and frequent handling. These activities guarantee that the animal and residents will interact effectively.
- Have a human handler who is willing to complete an 8 hour training session outlining the activities of Pets and People. This requirement verifies that the handler is familiar with health care environments and how to interact with staff and clients.
The following format is completed when Pets and People begin a therapy program
- An animal-assisted Therapist (AAT) meets with an administrative member of the facility. The therapist is often accompanied by a therapy cat. At this time, general therapy goals are discussed, arrangements for therapy times made, and the type of group interaction determined.
- After the program is established, the AAT meets with the program staff to assist in the selection of clients for the therapy group.
- The program staff and AAT then meet with clients to assist in developing an individual therapeutic animal-assisted therapy plan. Specific goals are set for each client.
- The AAT arranges with volunteers to provide a cat who best meets the criteria of the therapy situation. Sometimes the clients are best served by a cat and dog team. This can be arranged through Pets and People.
- Volunteers are appraised of the type of clients with whom they will be interacting. Anyone found to be allergic to animals or afraid of them are offered the option of participating in the program.
- Volunteers work in a specific setting for a specific amount of time. We try to take the same animals to the same clients, by the same handler, on the same day of the week, and at the same time every week. This helps clients anticipate the interaction and provides for more orientation.
- After the therapy session is complete, volunteers and program staff evaluate the interactions. Each person contributes their observations and assessments of the sessions.
- The program staff then note clients' interaction on their health care record.
Currently, Pets and People uses only pedigreed retired show cats. An important rationale for this selection is that cats from specific breeds can be more efficiently temperament predicted. Some breeds are more interactive than others. Also, show cats must be amenable to handling. Our cats are handled from the day they are born. This attention assists the cat to be better prepared for work as an animal therapist.
We do not want to imply that shelter or rescued cats would not make good therapy cats. Many of them have. We do however, encourage those persons interested in working with these cats to work closely with Pets and People. Through loving handling and professional cat interventions, many cats can have a fulfilling interaction experience with a person who needs unconditional love.
Questions regarding cats in therapy can be directed to:
Pat Gonser, Ph.D., R.N.
Donna Harrison, A.A.
c/o Pets and People
P.O. Box 4266, West Station
Meridian, MS 39307
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Pets and People: Companions in Therapy and Service.
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