Therapy Cats: Everything You Need To Know

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Everyone has heard the term "therapy dog." These animals are trained to provide emotional support to humans in need. But have you heard of therapy cats? Therapy cats visit hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, and mental health facilities to help individuals cope with and recover from mental and physical health conditions. 

Nearly 1 in 5 adults in America experience a mental illness,1 and therapy cats may play a role in helping people cope with their conditions. Despite being stereotyped as aloof or independent, cats can make great therapy animals, helping improve the quality of life for many individuals. 

What Are Therapy Cats?

Therapy cats have been trained to work with a professional handler, typically the pet parent, to help individuals with physical, mental, and emotional pain cope with various health conditions.2 But how do therapy cats work? Therapy cats aren't trained to care for specific individuals; instead, they offer comfort and affection to many people. They can work in schools, hospitals, or nursing homes, offering one-on-one sessions to ease anxiety and accelerate recovery.2 

Any cat can work as a therapy cat if trained to support humans in need. Therapy cats are used for emotional support, but they're not the same as emotional support animals. Still, they comfort individuals who need companions, including seniors, children, and anyone in between. 

Therapy Cat Vs. Emotional Support Cat

Therapy cats vs. emotional support cats

It's important to note that therapy cats are not the same as emotional support cats. Emotional support cats provide support for an individual and do not require any training. Therapy cats are certified or registered to visit public places, such as schools, hospitals, treatment facilities, and so forth, to benefit individuals in need. In addition, unlike service animals, they're not trained to work with a specific person to improve their quality of life. Instead, therapy cats work with a human handler, usually the pet parent, to volunteer in different settings to support the emotional well-being of others. 

Therapy cats are invited to different facilities and do not have public access. Still, they can complement treatment by offering comforting, supportive, and engaging interactions with others, which is why they're frequently used in hospitals, schools, and even courtrooms. Of course, some cats may not be welcome in some public facilities. For example, if residents or patients have a cat allergy, they may only allow cats that shed less or other service animals. Once your cat is certified, you can work with a nonprofit to find the right facilities for your cat to visit. 

Meanwhile, emotional support cats are companion animals who help their owners cope with emotional or mental health challenges.3 These animals don't require special training because their presence is more important than helping with daily tasks. 

It's also important to distinguish between therapy cats and service animals. Service animals assist with disabilities and are trained to perform specific tasks for their human companions to assist in their daily life.4 Conversely, therapy cats are trained and certified but don't receive specialized training to help with tasks; instead, their training might consist of behavioral training to ensure they can provide comfort and companionship to a wide range of individuals. In addition, therapy cats must undergo medical screening to ensure they're healthy and free of cat fleas that may infest public healthcare facilities. 

Therapy animals don't have the same rights as service animals; access to certain places is at the facility's discretion. In addition, traveling with your cat may be more difficult because they're not allowed in many public places. 

Benefits Of Having A Therapy Cat

How patients benefit from therapy animals

Remember, therapy cats are not trained to improve a specific person's daily life; instead, they support multiple individuals with various mental and physical health concerns. Therefore, owning a therapy cat may not directly benefit you or your health, but there are several benefits you can expect, including: 

  • Alleviate stress: Being a pet parent to a therapy cat can alleviate stress. While the main purpose of a therapy cat is to help others cope with various conditions, being a pet parent can be good for your mental health. Owning a pet has been linked to lower heart rate and blood pressure.5 Everything from the feel of their fur while you pet them to the sound of their purring can improve your mood, so your pet can reduce anxiety and stress in your life while supporting the emotional well-being of others.
  • Reduce loneliness: Therapy pets can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness because they're companion animals who rely on humans. Pets help individuals develop routines that offer emotional and social support, and older adults can benefit because cats are easy to care for yet provide companionship.5
  • Facilitate healing and promote health: Therapy cats can facilitate healing by helping patients and their pet parents stay calm and get the rest they need. Pet ownership has been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart attack.5 

Of course, the most significant benefit of owning a therapy pet is the ability to help others. Pet therapy has been proven to decrease stress levels, blood pressure, pain, fatigue, anxiety, and feelings of isolation and loneliness.6 It can drastically improve patients' moods and energy levels and reduce depression. Therefore, while you may not technically benefit from your cat being a therapy cat, many others can. 

How To Find A Therapy Cat

Several pet therapy programs are available to help you find a therapy cat. These programs can help hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other facilities schedule and organize animal therapy visits for those who can benefit from human-animal interactions. One of the largest nonprofits is Pet Partners. This organization has worked with thousands of facilities, like hospitals, schools, and retirement homes, to help their residents and patients benefit from pet therapy. 

You can also have your personal cat trained as a therapy cat and begin organizing visits with facilities. 

How To Get Your Cat Certified As A Therapy Cat

Getting your cat certified as a therapy cat is fairly easy. Remember, therapy cats are not the same as service animals, so they won't have to learn specific tasks. Instead, certification requires your cat to have the right temperament and training to comfort others. A therapy cat trainer might determine whether or not your cat would make a good therapy animal based on its unique temperament and personality. For example, a cat with anxiety would not make a good therapy pet because they're afraid of strangers. Instead, a very sociable cat who has been well socialized from a young age would be preferable. 

Several nonprofits and other organizations train and certify therapy cats, including PetPartners. Another large nonprofit that trains and certifies therapy cats is Love on a Leash. These organizations evaluate animals' health and behavior to determine whether or not they'd make good therapy animals. After they've passed the initial health evaluation, pets will undergo supervised in-person training visits. Therapy cats must meet the minimum requirements of the certifying organization. In addition, there's usually a certification fee owners must pay to have their pets officially certified. 

Therapy Cat Training

Therapy cat training is less intensive than service animal training but still required to ensure your cat will make a good therapy animal. The nonprofit organization that certifies your cat will provide the proper training, but you should continue to train them to help them get more easily certified. Training typically consists of three primary components: 

  • Harness and leash training: While indoor cats typically don't wear harnesses or leashes, therapy cats must because they'll be spending time in public places like hospitals. Therefore, their handler will need to have control of them at all times. 
  • Grooming: Another component of therapy cat training is basic grooming. You must continue to care for your cat to ensure their health, including grooming, ear cleaning, and basic health needs like flea and tick prevention. In most cats, pets must not only be healthy, but they should be well-groomed and clean. 
  • Socialization: All pets should be socialized to promote their emotional well-being. However, it's especially important for therapy cats because they'll meet new people every time they volunteer. Therefore, they must be people-friendly and comfortable in new environments. One day your cat might be at a hospital with adults, and the next in a school with children. In some cats, a change of environment can cause anxiety, so it's best to ensure they're properly socialized before being certified.7 Keep in mind, the key socialization period for cats is before 9 weeks of age.

Therapy Cats: Frequently Asked Questions

Are there therapy cats for anxiety?

Yes, there are therapy cats for anxiety and other mental health conditions. However, remember, therapy cats aren't used for an individual person; instead, they visit facilities to provide support and comfort. If you’re looking for a cat for your individual needs, you may need an emotional support animal. Instead of visiting facilities and public places, emotional support animals are companion pets who comfort their owners living with anxiety or depression. Emotional support animals don't need any specialized training. However, you will need a written prescription from your doctor for your cat to be considered an emotional support animal. 

What do therapy cats help with?

Therapy cats can provide comfort and support to individuals suffering from a wide range of health and developmental conditions. For example, they can help everyone from kids with autism to seniors in a nursing home. Sessions with therapy cats can help alleviate pain and reduce anxiety and feelings of loneliness. In addition, the simple act of petting a cat can be incredibly soothing for patients and people of all types. 

How do you qualify for a therapy cat?

There are no qualifications for you to use therapy cats because they're not for individual purposes. Instead, the cat is qualified as a therapy cat that volunteers in various facilities to support the emotional well-being of many different people. However, you must qualify for emotional support and service animals. Since therapy cats are used in public facilities to help a wide range of individuals, they're certified by a nonprofit or specialized trainer. On the other hand, you must qualify for a service or emotional support animal, and qualification requirements differ. For example, you must have a written prescription from your healthcare provider to get an emotional support animal.

Close up of a cat sitting in someone’s lap 

Final Notes

Therapy cats volunteer in several types of facilities to support the emotional wellness of others. Owning a therapy cat can be a rewarding experience if you want to help others, but if you don't plan on taking your cat to volunteer, you don't need to have them certified. Instead, if your cat is meant to provide personal companionship or emotional support, it can become an emotional support animal that requires no extra training and only a prescription from your physician. However, if you think your cat would make a great therapy animal, you can begin the certification process with one of several non-profits. 

Of course, to become a therapy cat, your pet must undergo a health screening and training, so you should have them treated for any underlying health conditions before certification. Dutch can diagnose and treat conditions in cats that may prevent them from becoming certified. In addition, we can help you determine whether your cat has the right temperament for the job of helping others. Try Dutch today. 

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References

  1. "Mental Health Facts in America." National Alliance on Mental Illness, https://www.nami.org/nami/media/nami-media/infographics/generalmhfacts.pdf.

  2. "What Is a Therapy Cat and How Can They Help?" US Service Animals Blog, 23 Aug. 2019, https://usserviceanimals.org/blog/therapy-cat/.

  3. Definition of a Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal vs. Therapy Dog. https://www.americanhumane.org/app/uploads/2018/05/Definition-of-Service-Dog_3_7_18.compressed.pdf.

  4. "Service, Emotional Support, and Therapy Animals." American Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/service-emotional-support-and-therapy-animals.

  5. "Top 5 Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond." HABRI, 23 Nov. 2020, https://habri.org/blog/top-5-benefits-of-the-human-animal-bond/.

  6. Perkins, Amanda. "The Benefits of Pet Therapy : Nursing Made Incredibly Easy." LWW, https://journals.lww.com/nursingmadeincrediblyeasy/fulltext/2020/01000/the_benefits_of_pet_therapy.2.aspx.

  7. Hunter-Frederick, Allison. "Training Cats to Become Therapy Cats." The IAABC JOURNAL, https://iaabcjournal.org/training-cats-to-become-therapy-cats/.

Frequently Asked Questions

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