Interview with Pet Partners’ Natalie Pond About Therapy Cats
We’re all pretty aware of the benefits of therapy dogs.
The help they’re able to provide for humans ranges from putting smiles on our faces to physically assisting those with serious disabilities.
But this isn’t about dogs…
Believe it or not, cats can also make good therapy pets, along with other species like horses, rabbits, pigs, birds, llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, and rats. According to Natalie Pond, marketing and strategic partnerships coordinator at volunteer-based therapy pet organization Pet Partners in Washington, the therapy cats in their organization provide emotional support to adults and children in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other facilities their group works with. All Pet Partners therapy animals go through training as well as health screening, and the handler and pet must pass a skills and aptitude evaluation.
Think your cat has what it takes? Pond answered our pressing questions about cultivating therapy cats:
The Honest Kitchen: Do cats make as good of therapists as dogs?
Natalie Pond: Oh absolutely. I don’t think it’s a question so much of species… Diversity is a key part of the program. Different clients are gonna resonate differently with different animals. It all boils down to the individual personality of the animal and also the skill of the handler.
THK: How common are therapy cats at your organization?
NP: About 94% of our teams are dog teams…which means that approximately 1 percent or less of each species makes up the remainder. We’re up to 209 [cats] at the moment. We’re always trying to spread the word about the multiple species.
Dogs have kind of a different evolutionary history with humans than cats do…It has nothing to do whether cats are inherently qualified or not. The ones that we have are amazing.
If people have a cat that’s low-key and loves to be handled by people, we welcome them with open arms.
THK: What do you look for in a good therapy cat?
NP: All animals are going to be house-trained and comfortable wearing either a harness or collar on leash.
In cats we look for ones that thrive off of interaction with lots of different people. If you have one that’s just content and wants to snuggle and maybe likes kids…we’re looking for those animals that go with the flow.
THK: What are definite no-no’s?
NP: I would say any kind of unpredictable aggression. This applies to all species. If there were incidents—hissing, yowling, an unpredictable scratch…
Sometimes an animal’s best job is to be your pet, and that’s totally fine. That is not a knock against any animal. What we’re looking for is that element of predictable, reliable, and controllable [for a therapy pet]. The animal is responsive to cues.
Basically what you’re doing is taking pets out of their comfort zone and taking them to a new place with new people. There’s some that just don’t care. The cats that are registered with the program, they’re like lumps of love.
THK: What are some things an owner should observe or do before deciding to enroll their cat as a therapist?
NP: You take those socialization opportunities where you can get them. Test them out. How’s it gonna go?
Being able to read your animal’s body language is a key requisite. If you can read your animal’s body language, you’re gonna be an advocate for your animal. You’re gonna keep your visits very safe.
THK: Any other requirements for therapy cats?
NP: They need to be a year old…just to give them the time to develop mentally and physically. We have animals registered well into adulthood, too.
We have some animals that register late in life. Don’t write it off just because your cat is 7 or 8.
We don’t have any restrictions on breed or anything like that.
THK: What are some simple tips for turning your cat into a therapy cat?
NP: Something I hear from cat people fairly regularly: “Oh I never put my cat in a harness.” Even if they’re just lying around the house, try putting them in a harness for a little bit.
Cats are different than dogs. There are creative things out there to help teach your cat the skills. It’s worth doing a little research to see what’s out there.