What is a Therapy Cat and How Can They Help?

Millions of Americans suffer from physical and mental health issues on a daily basis. While medical experts continue to make tremendous strides to eradicate diseases and treat a wide array of maladies, not everyone responds to traditional methods of treatment in the same way. This is especially true when it comes to physical disabilities, mental health problems, and emotional trauma. Thankfully, therapy animals offer an alternative that can ease the burden and put patients back on the path to recovery.

Therapy animals have made a real difference in countless lives. From people who agonize over the loss of a loved one, to those who struggle with physical impairments in the wake of a car accident, animals can play a vital role in their treatment plans. At usserviceanimals.org, we aim to provide you with the information you need to stay up-to-date and informed on your options for animal therapy. 

While there are numerous species that can qualify as therapy animals, dogs are by far the most common animal of choice. When most people think about therapy and service animals, they immediately picture a happy, well-trained dog in a special vest. However, this is not always the case. Therapy animals come in all shapes, sizes, and species.

Though they often get overlooked, cats are a great option for those in need of a therapy animal. Thanks to their natural bond with people, calming demeanor, and reassuring “purr” of contentment, cats are ideal for relaxation and healing. So, let’s take a look at what it means to use a therapy cat and how they can be an established part of any treatment plan.

What Is A Therapy Cat?

A therapy cat is a cat that has the correct temperament and/or has been trained, with the help of a professional handler, to help people who are in physical, mental, or emotional pain. They assist people both young and old, with a wide variety of issues. Generally, therapy cats are introduced to patients in a series of one-on-one sessions designed to ease anxiety and accelerate the recovery process.

While dogs are often referred to as “man’s best friend,” cats are not always seen so favorably. In fact, there are many stereotypes of cats that make them seem as though they aren’t a good fit for therapy. People often (mistakenly) associate cats with these negative traits:

  • Cats are aloof – Though every animal’s personality is unique, many cat owners see their pet as emotionally distant, especially when compared to dogs. For example, when you come home from work, your dog may come bounding toward you, wagging its tail in excitement. On the other hand, your cat may just give you a passing glance, if that.
  • Cats are independent – This may not sound like a bad trait, but cats can be very independent animals. Many cats seem to only interact with humans when it benefits them to do so. However, if there is no benefit for them, they simply ignore you. When you put out food and try to be loving, and you’re cat won’t give you the time of day, it can seem like cats just use people as means to an end.
  • Cats are associated with evil – In addition to being associated with witches and dark magic, cats are often seen as an omen of bad things to come. Black cats, in particular, are believed to bring bad luck.
  • Cats are temperamental – Like any animal, cats can get upset and lash out at people for seemingly no reason. Since cats are hunters, they have retractable claws and sharp teeth that can do real damage.

Though there may be some anecdotal evidence to support a few of these stereotypes, they certainly don’t tell the whole story. In fact, many people unfairly believe these stereotypes because of the perceived differences between cats and dogs. However, for every seemingly mean, temperamental, emotionally-frigid cat, there is a gentle, friendly, affectionate cat as well; the same goes for dogs and most other animals.  

Though we have a tendency to compartmentalize and categorize different species using human emotions and personality traits, the truth is that animals are extremely complex creatures, just like us. At the end of the day, animals have just as much capacity to spread joy and alleviate pain as humans do (if not more). So, let’s take a look at a few traits cats possess that enable them to be superior therapy animals: 

  • Cats enjoy physical contact – It is proven that petting an animal can relieve anxiety and even help with depression, and domesticated cats love to be pet. 
  • Cats become emotionally attached – Though cats may be a bit more independent than dogs, they still become attached to their owners (and people in general). They simply show their attachment in different ways.
  • Cats can sense negative emotions – Just like dogs, cats are able to pick up on human emotions based on behaviors, vocal cues, and facial expressions.
  • Cats can communicate well – Cats use a variety of physical and vocal cues to communicate. The typical “meow” is reserved specifically for communicating with humans. 
  • Cats are low-maintenance – While dogs need to be walked every few hours and fed specific amounts of food at specific times, cats are much easier to handle. For the most part, you only need to provide a litter box, a bowl of food, and a bowl of water for your cat to be content.

How Therapy Cats Work

Therapy cats are not typically used to help with specific tasks like service dogs or horses. Instead, therapy cats provide emotional comfort to those who need it. For example, if an elderly person in a nursing home is feeling lonely, a therapy cat can be a great companion. Alternatively, if a child has recently lost one of their parents, therapy cats can be essential for dealing with emotional trauma. 

Humans develop special bonds with animals, and cats are no exception. Sessions with therapy cats use this bond to heal and alleviate pain, loneliness, or anxiety. It can be incredibly soothing to hold and pet a cat, to feel it purr and enjoy your touch. In essence, this is what therapy cats are trained to do; they are trained to love and be loved in return.

Therapy cats are particularly effective with patients fighting depression and anxiety disorders. These issues are often associated with feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, social anxiety, and fear. These symptoms can make it very difficult for someone to connect with other people, or even get out of bed in the morning. A therapy cat works to alleviate these symptoms and offer a stress-free emotional connection.

Depression is also common among those suffering from physical impairments. It is easy to fall into despair when you no longer have mobility or the ability to accomplish daily tasks. This is yet another situation in which therapy cats can work wonders on a patient’s emotional well-being. Cats instinctively like to curl up on your lap and purr. This show of contentment naturally brings about joy and helps relieve feelings of sadness, even if you are physically unable to return the favor.

Training Therapy Cats

Not every cat is cut out to provide therapeutic services. This kind of work requires a very specific temperament, and possibly even training. Therapy cats need to be friendly, patient, and gentle. Additionally, therapy cats must be comfortable being touched by humans, even humans who may not know how to properly handle a cat.

While most of these traits are inborn, some can be taught to one degree or another. When a cat meets the above requirements, a certified team of pet therapists can train them to recognize certain emotional signals, react to them with love and affection, and avoid aggression at all times. 

However, it is important to note that therapy cats do not necessarily need to be trained. Since animals can develop an emotional bond with their owners (or even a friendly stranger), the relationship can be a naturally therapeutic one. Therefore, as long as the cat is not overly aggressive and is comfortable giving and receiving affection from people, it can generally qualify as a therapy animal.

Working With A Therapy Cat

Working with a therapy cat can make all the difference in the world to someone who is in pain. If you or someone you know is suffering, there is no reason to delay treatment. Therapy cats and other therapy animals can provide love and support to those who need it most. Consult our team at usserviceanimals.org for more information on getting treatment with service animals.

If you already have a cat that provides you with support, you may be eligible to register your pet as an emotional support animal. This will allow you to take your pet to places that otherwise would not allow animals (certain flights, restaurants, public areas, etc). However, your cat will need to meet certain requirements to be eligible. You can learn more about the rules and benefits of registering your emotional support cat right here.