Monday, January 2, 2012

Therapy Cats

King Street Cats Volunteer, Allie Phillips, and Tony the Therapy Cat

Ever hear of Therapy Cats?  No, not the cat that needs therapy, although many of us kitty parents often wonder if a little therapeutic couch time might do our fluffer duffers some good.  Rather, we're talking about cats that are taken into different venues to provide a sense of love and companionship for those who need it most.  
One of our volunteers, Allie Phillips, has had extensive exposure to this topic of Therapy Cats, so we thought we'd sit down with her and gain some insight.

KSC: Today we are talking with Allie Phillips about the topic of Therapy Animals, specifically cats. She's a long-time volunteer at King Street Cats, and a nationally-recognized author, attorney, advocate and trainer on animal protection issues. She is the co-creator of Therapy Animals Supporting Kids (TASK) Program, which advocates for placing therapy animals with abused children.

AP: For years I have been advocating for the expansion of therapy animals into the criminal justice system. Part of that involves advocating for the inclusion of therapy cats since therapy dogs are most prevalent. I have found a wide spread belief that cats are aloof and would not make good therapy animals, but over the past 12 years of doing cat rescue I have come across hundreds of cats that would have made amazing therapy cats. And since I have a national platform to provide trainings to criminal justice professionals across the U.S., I am using this platform to not only advocate for therapy animals, but to also think about including therapy cats in the process. Since some children or adults may be afraid of dogs (even nice dogs), it is good to have a therapy cat available for that child or adult.

KSC: Allie, please define the role of a therapy cat. 

AP: Therapy dogs are more prevalent, but there are therapy cats who are doing amazing work. Therapy cats who are registered with a national therapy animal organization, like Delta Society, go through the same testing and training that therapy dogs do. Most therapy animals spend time in hospitals, schools, nursing homes and even hospice facilities. Recently, therapy animals have been expanding into the criminal justice system, even going in to the courtroom to help crime victims testify. But some people have designated their cat to be their own private therapy cat for psychological and mental health reasons. If a doctor provides a note that a patient requires a therapy cat (or dog), then that person cannot be discriminated against in housing.  

KSC: Are therapy cats used with both children and adults?  If so, do the needs for which the cat is providing vary at all between the two?

AP: Therapy cats can benefit both children and adults. If someone is ill, in therapy, struggling in school, lonely, or a crime victim, therapy animals can provide unconditional acceptance, positive human-animal touch, or a nonjudgmental ear (and whiskers) to listen. I have witnessed child abuse victims actually make their disclosure by whispering in to the ear of a cat; the child felt safer telling the cat than telling the child protection professional because cats (and dogs) do not judge. The therapy animals simply take the information and send back unconditional love. That is something that humans, though they try, are unable to do.

KSC: How are therapy cats trained?

AP: Personally I have not been involved in the training of therapy cats; instead, I work on the legal aspects of effectively incorporating a therapy animal into the criminal justice system. However, in working with animal-assisted therapy professionals nationally, I have learned that it is more about training the handler (the person who has the therapy animal) to properly guide and advise the therapy animal. Therapy animals are typically chosen by a handler based on their natural personality. We've all met cats who are outgoing (but not obnoxious), love everyone, enjoy traveling in a carrier, and maybe are trained to walk on a leash. All of the therapy cats that I have met have been rescue cats; there is no cat breed that is needed to be a therapy cat. When a handler has a cat that has the personality of a good therapy cat, the handler-animal team undergoes temperament testing for the cat and training of the handler. They are a team and it is important that the handler be able to advocate and care for their therapy animal. For instance, a handler needs to know when their therapy cat is tired and needs to rest. If a handler is properly trained, then the handler-animal team is effective. My co-creator of the TASK Program is the founder of Denver Pet Partners. They have a wonderful website that describes what it takes to be a good handler-animal team.

KSC: Are therapy cats adopted into homes where there is a need, or is it more of a visitation/short-term process?

AP: Therapy cats (and dogs) are actually "owned" by their handler and they will visit facilities. It is just like you and me getting our cats trained, tested and registered as therapy cats and then finding organizations that can benefit from our services. The therapy cats have homes just like regular cats. The only difference is that they have a day job. And when a therapy animal is registered through Delta Society, their services are free of charge. So if a children's reading group or a nursing home could benefit from a therapy cat, you as the handler would volunteer your time once a week, once a month, or however often you want. And with that registration with Delta Society, you and your therapy cat come with $1 million in insurance. This is a lovely story of a Delta Society therapy cat in Colorado Springs.

KSC: Where can someone reading this blog go for more information on therapy cats ?

AP: They can go to Delta Society to learn more about therapy animals and google "therapy cats" and their locality to see about opportunities available for training and testing. Or go to my website to read more articles and listen to me talk about therapy animals on the radio.

We'd love to hear your comments, either on Therapy Cats, or just the healing you've seen cats (or dogs) do in your or other peoples' lives.  There's no doubt the joy that a kitty can bring to our homes...
I know my life wouldn't be the same without
those 3 little fuzzballs that greet me at the door every night.  Post your thoughts below! 

No comments: