Therapy Cats

It's No Longer Unusual to See Cats as Therapy Animals

Child Undergoing Chemotherapy With Therapy Kitten. Getty Images / Mary Gascho

Cats seem to have the instinct to be there when we need comfort. Whether we are sick, worried about our work, blue over a broken romance, or mourning the loss of a dear friend or loved one, a cat will inevitably show up to share our angst. Feeling a furry body steal into your lap, then give loving licks on your hand or face, purring all the while, is one of the most comforting feelings imaginable.


Cats as Therapy in the Home

Much has been written about the role cats play as sources of comfort in our daily lives. One of the most inspiring stories was about a cat who helped a boy with autism. The author, J. Manerling, is a widowed father of two children. His son, Richard, was 4 years old when his mother died, and lives with autism. By a strange coincidence, J. Manerling already worked in the field of neuroscience, with children who have neuropsychological disabilities. At 4, Richard had no mental retardation but still was nonverbal.

Reasoning that a therapy pet might help Richard come out of his shell, he made every effort to expose his son to every kind of animal. Nothing worked until the day J.M. took Richard to an animal shelter. In his words:

"I walked past the cat room into the dog area. Again, I was disappointed that my son just stared around him at everything else, but not at the dogs. They seemed to hold his attention for a few seconds.

As we were leaving, once again we walked past the cat area doors. I figured, "What the heck? It's worth a try. Though I have no idea what he'll find interesting in there." We walked into the cat area, which was significantly smaller than the dog area. As we walked past the cages, there in a corner was a black and white tuxedo cat. Suddenly my four-year-old non-verbal son pointed to the cage and said, "Cat!" That was it. That day we took the cat home. My son could not come up with a name for his new friend. My daughter, who has always been very protective of her younger brother tried to help find a name that he could pronounce. Finally, the name Clover was discovered.


At the time of its writing, Richard was a college student and had two other cats, Linus and Melody as his muses. You can read more of Richard's story at Cat Therapy for Autistic Children

Therapy Cats for Victims of Drug/ Alcohol Addiction

Two men in recent years have recounted their having reached rock bottom during years of alcohol and/or drug addiction.

In both cases, cats were the deciding influence that led them to lead clean and sober lives and become role models for other troubled addicts. And in both cases, they wrote books recounting their stories.

  • Jack Galaxy, of "My Cat From Hell" TV fame, wrote his inaugural book, Cat Daddy, after a cat named Benny saved him from the hellish world of drugs and alcohol.
  • James Bowden, a drugs and alcohol addict, worked a nomadic life, busking for donations by playing his guitar and singing. One day, he met Bob, a street cat who attached himself to James. One thing led to another and the result was James' book, "A Street Cat Named Bob and How He Saved my Life."

Therapy Cats in Nursing Homes

Is it any wonder then, that cats are great therapy for nursing home residents, too? It brings joy to see eyes light up when a cat is brought in by a visitor. Even more fortunate are those patients of health care facilities who have a cat in residence.

Try petting your kitty when you are feeling stress from the activities of an unusually busy day. You'll find those tense shoulder and neck muscles relaxing, your heart rate slowing, and an intense feeling of pleasure flowing through your entire body, as all those stresses, flow out and relaxation flows in. Those are the benefits of therapy cats to nursing home residents and health care facilities, and they can be equally applied to the rest of us.

Therapy Cats With Alzheimer Patients

Therapy cats are especially valuable when interacting with Alzheimer's disease patients, by stimulating both memory and forgotten emotions.

One of the most astounding cases of cats assisting Alzheimer's patients is Oscar, the cat who rules the third-floor dementia ward of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island.

Oscar has the almost mystical ability to sniff out patients who face imminent death, and he invariably stays with them until they have passed over. Often, Oscar will not leave a patient's bedside until someone arrives to remove the deceased. Then, he will turn to the next most needy patient. Oscar's story has been told in the masterful book, "Making Rounds With Oscar," by David Dosa, M.D., a staff physician at Steere House, with a background in geriatrics. No one knows precisely what alerts Oscar to the pending demise of a patient, although there are several theories, including the odor of ketones on the patients' breath, signaling the breakdown of body cells.

Although dogs have more traditionally been recruited as therapy animals, and horses are the second most favored, cats are being used more and more. After all, the advantage of being able to purr is of huge value, and seeing eyes light up as wrinkled hands stroke a wildly vibrating furry body is a convincing argument for cats in this role.

Choosing a Therapy Cat

Cats chosen for therapy must meet certain criteria. They should be of a "laid-back" temperament, with no fear of strangers, and tolerant of new circumstances. It goes without saying that they should be current on shots, and either have their claws trimmed or plastic caps such as SoftPaws attached. Although previously declawed cats might be used as therapy animals, they should never be declawed for that purpose.