Most of you kitties probably don’t have any desire to be a therapy cat. You are perfectly comfortable staying at home with your humans. But maybe a few of you out there are wondering if you have the right stuff. I would love to see more cats offering purr therapy to humans, so I’ve put together a list of what makes for a good therapy cat. Even if you aren’t considering volunteering in pet therapy, I think you will find this list interesting!
10 things a therapy cat needs:
- A friendly demeanor.
Of course a cat needs to be friendly to be a therapy cat — it’s part of the job! But keep in mind that you don’t actually have to be the friendliest kitty in the house. Binga is actually friendlier than I am when strangers come over, but she has other traits (like biting) that disqualify her from becoming a therapy cat. I do like to visit with strangers at home, but I hang back a bit because being a greeter was Binga’s job before I came to live here. If you are friendly enough with strangers at home and like meeting them, that is all that matters.
- An easy-going temperament.
Just because you are friendly, it does not mean that you are easy going! Binga loves attention, but she also has a short temper and she bites and whaps. If you try to handle her paws when she is not in the mood, she can get feisty. You can’t be that way if you want to be a therapy cat! You need to be even-tempered and not mind being handled in strange ways. As a therapy cat, people will want to touch you, and not everyone is used to being around kitties, so you will get lots of unusual touching. You have to be okay with that, and never let things get you mad or upset.
- You have to be okay with being held.
Part of being evaluated as a therapy cat involves being held, and you have to at least tolerate it. If you like it, that’s ideal. I will admit, I’m not the biggest fan of being held (I’d rather go up to people and solicit attention), but I don’t mind it. It’s not good therapy for a human to hold you, and you are struggling and trying to get away. So being held is something you will have to do well.
- You need to be harness and leash trained.
I found it easy to adapt to a harness and leash. But even if it takes some getting used to for you, as long as you are teachable and eventually adjust to it, that’s good. Not all therapy cats have to actually walk on a leash (although it helps) — some get to ride in strollers. But either way, you need to be comfortable wearing a harness, and the therapy vest or bandana that identifies your organization, and you must be on a leash.
- You enjoy outings.
Therapy cats visit a lot of different places — hospitals, nursing homes, college campuses and more. So you need to enjoy new locations and situations. There are different ways to figure that out. Your human could take you to pet stores, or to pet-friendly hotels. If there are cat shows near your home, your human can enter you in the household pet category. That will really put you to the test because you will be away from home all day and you will be handled by several different judges, and also maybe show spectators. If you handle being in a cat show with poise and a good attitude, you are definitely therapy cat material.
- You must not mind getting bathed and groomed… at least not too much!
Therapy organizations want their pets to be bathed before visits, so getting baths is something you will have to get used to. I will admit, getting bathed is not my favorite activity, but I deal with it and don’t struggle or freak out. Plus I get treats at the end, and that’s nice! You will also get your claws trimmed before your therapy visits, so you need to be okay with that too. If getting a bath or having your claws trimmed is a traumatic experience, being a therapy cat won’t be fun for you.
- Loud noises and chaos should not upset you.
I’m not talking about fireworks — every cat (and dog) hates those! But you need to be calm for regular, everyday loud noises, like a big cart being wheeled down a hallway, or banging around of tables and chairs being put away. That’s one of the reasons cat shows are such good training for therapy cats — there are always people running around, usually holding cats, and the breakdown of tables and benching areas at the end is pretty noisy. I was a show cat from the time I was four months old, so I’m okay with pretty much anything that happens at a hospital.
- You are good with dogs.
The majority of therapy pets are dogs, and it’s likely there will be times that you will have to share space with a team that includes a dog. Therapy dogs are very special — they are better behaved and better trained than your average dog. And most of them are very nice. It’s easy to like most therapy dogs, I’ve found. But if you are a cat that can’t stand being around dogs, that may cause you problems as a therapy cat.
- You need a good human.
This is a really important part of being a therapy cat! You need someone on your team who is as even tempered as you are, and who can be calm in all sorts of situations. You need a human who is protective of you — but not over-protective. Someone who is observant, and can sense when you are tired or upset, and will take you home if you need to leave. You also need a human who follows rules and does not complain about them — because hospitals and nursing homes tend to have a whole lot of rules! My human has to take tests periodically on procedure for the hospitals we visit. Honestly, I am surprised my human does as well as she does as a therapy team member because the only thing she is really good at is taking tests. But she really did rise to the occasion to work with me as a therapy cat. She follows rules, even though it’s not natural for her, and she forces herself to be calm and not overreact about stuff. So it is possible for humans to be trained to be a good team member for you.
- You need to be at least a year old.
While everybody loves kittens, they don’t make good therapy cats because they are still developing their personalities. They are also rambunctious and get easily distracted. Therapy cats need to be calm and focused on the patients. So when you are a kitten, it is a good time to learn the therapy cat ropes, like wearing a harness and being on a leash, going on adventures, and being handled by lots of people. But you will need to wait until you are over a year old before an organization will evaluate you as a therapy cat.
If you want to know more about therapy cat training, you can visit Pet Partners and Love On a Leash. They aren’t the only organizations around, but they’re the biggest. You may find a group local to you that’s good too.
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