By Alyssa Huckleberry
When you think therapy pet, what comes to mind? A dog, right? Probably a lab or a golden retriever. If you think longer and harder, your mind might conjure some more comical images of birds, tortoises, or hamsters in the line of duty…animals that have snagged headlines for their surprising (and rare) service. But what about a cat? After all, a 2016 Gallup study showed that 44% of Americans own a dog and 29% a cat…hardly the numbers represented when you consider the number of dogs trained as therapy pets versus the number of cats.
Some predictable factors have kept cats on the sidelines: shy or skittish temperaments, cats’ sense of independence (not so pleased to be confined to a leash), and the issue of transportation (most cat owners will describe torturous, hair-rising car rides when they’ve needed to transport their cat) are some reasons frequently cited. And yet, cats who don’t fit this stereotype can be the perfect antidote for anxious children, fragile seniors, and the individual in need of a warm lap. Not only that, but cats’ smaller size and cuddle-quotient serve as powerful incentives to bring more felines into the realm of pet therapy.
Felix is precisely that kind of cat: a curious, unbiased attention-hog who loves to travel and doesn’t mind a leash (just to name a few of his quixotic behaviors). The response is the same if Felix is at the neighborhood coffee shop, Farmer’s Market, or the beach: people that spot his pointy ears and wide eyes poking out of the top of the pet purse will usually begin by murmuring to their companions about the presence of a cat outside the home before either chuckling or asking to meet the furry little charmer.
Like any pet owner, I’m biased towards my fur-baby: he’s adorable (yes), he’s so well-behaved (yes, yes), he’s so calm (well…you’re not seeing him at home). But it was the repeated and unexpected emotional responses that got the gears turning for Felix’s aptitude for pet therapy: on many occasions, strangers holding Felix close would begin crying before going on to share heartfelt memories or strong feelings that his presence elicited. Family members and friends expressed shock at the number of “cat people”: a group of people with no less affection but with fewer opportunities to interact with their preferred pet in public.
Months later, just after Felix’s first birthday (an age requirement for all therapy pet programs), he began his training. Today, Felix can be found ministering to school-age children as well as seniors in the nearby nursing home (where his owner rather sheepishly is sometimes made to sing the “Felix the Cat” song from the old cartoon). While the visits themselves run the gamut, here are some tips that we’ve picked up along the way.