What is a therapy animal and could your cat be a candidate? What is the certification process, and how should you prepare your cat for visits?
I have been doing pet therapy with my cat Rainy since 2018. Therapy pets visit people who would benefit from emotional comfort.
What is a therapy animal?
Therapy animals bring happiness to a variety of populations, including seniors, patients, disaster victims, inmates, airline passengers, students, children, and anyone else who could use comfort with physical and/or psychological ailments, and have been certified and insured by a therapy animal organization. They are different from service animals, which have received specialized training to perform specific tasks for a specific person with specific physical needs due to a disease or disability. They are also different from emotional support animals, which provide comfort to their owner, who a medical professional has determined to need such support.
Could your cat be a candidate for therapy work?
To answer the question of what qualifies a cat for therapy work, I’ve drawn on my five years of experience and on interviews with members of the private online International Cat Assisted Therapy (I-CAT) group. Four qualifications stand out: socialization, harness training, husbandry, and trust.
Socialization: The more socialized your cat is, the more likely your cat will be a candidate for therapy work. The point of cat therapy is to give comfort to people, so the top requirement of therapy cats is that they’re people-friendly. Ideally, they’ll relax whether in one-on-one or group situations. Therapy cats also need to be comfortable in new and varied settings. Rainy and I have visited retirement communities, hospices, schools, libraries, and parks. Finally, therapy cats must adapt easily to new sights, sounds, and smells. New places may have elevators, wheelchairs, alarms, unzipping of pencil cases, and wheeling of book carts.
Some people believe that a cat’s personality is innate, while others believe that a cat can be trained. Rainy came to us as a kitten with the potential to become a therapy cat because of her personality: she was curious, affectionate, and unflappable. But her personality alone wasn’t enough. I had to build on her personal qualities with lots of training specific to being a therapy cat. I followed the example of other cat therapy handlers and took Rainy to a wide variety of places, introduced her to an assortment of sounds, and taught her to sit on a blanket both next to a person and on a person’s lap. In addition, I taught her to remain calm when people were rough or shaky with their movements and when around other animals.
Harness Training: Therapy cats need to be leashed, and that it can take a lot of time and patience to train a cat to accept a harness. With Rainy, I let her sniff a harness and play with it, next put the harness on her while inside our house, and then attached a leash to the harness with her still inside. I allowed several days for each of these steps and paired each step with treats so that Rainy would learn to view going for walks as a good thing. Only when she was completely comfortable with the harness and leash inside our home, did I take her outside. Even then, I still took baby steps to get her to the point where I could take her on outings.
Husbandry: This term refers to the care and maintenance that is required to keep our pets healthy. Specifically, it includes cleaning eyes, ears, and teeth; trimming nails; and washing and grooming fur.
One therapy pet certification requires that therapy pets should have clean eyes and ears, odor-free breath, and groomed hair. They must also be bathed within 24 hours of the visit and kept clean until the visit. For cats, a sponge bath using water, cleaning wipe, or dry shampoo is acceptable. Nails should be clipped to a safe length.
Another therapy pet certification is more lenient, but still requires that a cat is clean before each visit, their hair has been brushed, and their nails have been clipped. The latter is important because cats use their back claws when jumping off things such as people’s laps, and the organization doesn’t want cats “to accidentally puncture someone’s laps if they jump.”
From the start, I’ve taught Rainy to accept basic husbandry. It’s now part of our morning routine, and I always reinforce her cooperation with treats. Each day, I check Rainy’s eyes, clean her ears and teeth, and brush her hair. Prior to a therapy visit, I also clip her nails.
Building trust: This qualification is perhaps the easiest to achieve because it will occur naturally while you’re working on the other qualifications. If you want to work specifically on building your cat’s trust in you, some ideas include providing it with a safe space, teaching it manners, and integrating training into your daily routine.
One way to build trust is to provide your cat with a safe place. Cat therapy handler Terri Jennings said, “It’s important for therapy cats to feel that their carrier and stroller are their safe place. No matter where you go, no matter what happens around you, your cat has a sanctuary.” This has proved particularly true for Rainy and I when we’re in places that are scarier for her such as the outdoors.
Another way to build trust is teach your cat basic manners such as sit, stay, come, and go to mat. Jennings pointed out, “It’s impossible to desensitize a cat to everything, so looking to me for direction/assurance is vital.” Thompson listed several skills that I hadn’t even considered, such as: settle down, hop up, look at the camera/phone, ask to be petted, soft paws (to use paw pads, not claws), no, yes, go over to ____ (individual, place, or thing), come here, and walk with me (a “heel” command for on-leash walking).
A final way to build trust is to take time every day for training. Janiss Garza, who often writes about her cat therapy adventures, gives this advice: “Remember you are a team, and that the most important part of doing this is building trust. Your cat is doing all the work, but she can only do it if she knows you are her safe harbor. Summer relaxes with all the populations we visit because she knows I’ll take her out of a situation with too much risk for her, or when she is tired or stressed. Summer knows that when we are out, I have her back, and she trusts me implicitly. This is crucial when the two of you are working as a therapy team.”
How can you and your cat become certified for therapy work?
There are several organizations that certify cat therapy teams. Pet Partners and Love On A Leash are two of the largest, but some areas also have local organizations. Rainy and I began her certification process back in January 2018 with Love on a Leash (LOAL).
Our first step was to have a Control Evaluation form completed by our veterinarian. The form asked eleven questions. Some were about health, others about temperament, and the rest were related to LOAL regulations. Evaluation of temperament is by far the most important. Aggressive cats are automatically disqualified. Our vet described Rainy as: “social, inquisitive, and sweet”.
Our second step was to undergo ten supervised visits at a facility. If there’s a local LOAL chapter, a graduate of the program can act as supervisor. The closest chapter to us was an hour away, but at that time no one had graduated from the cat program. Rainy and I were instead supervised by the activity directors of the two senior residences where we visited.
The third step was to fill out the LOAL application for cats. The first page asked for basic information about me, Rainy, and our vet. I also had to sign a declaration that stated Rainy has never been aggressive. The second page was a fee checklist. The cost for a new certified therapy pet team is $50.00 and annual membership renewal for one member and one pet is $30.00. The third page contained a pet agreement. Among other things, it stipulates that we’ll continue to train and that we’ll be clean and well-groomed for each visit. In addition to filling out the three-page form, I had to submit a head shot of Rainy for her photo ID and two full-body photos of her for LOAL’s records.
After our application was approved, a LOAL national representative asked me follow-up questions and then told me my application would get forwarded to the Membership Chairman. The Membership Chairman also asked me a few questions and then told me that Rainy’s certification was approved. My therapy cat certification included: ID for me, photo ID for Rainy, LOAL bandanna, plastic ID holder for both IDs, retractable lanyard, LOAL pet tag, and LOAL certificate.
How should you prepare your cat for therapy visits?
To answer the question of what qualifies a cat for therapy work, I’ve again drawn on my five years of experience and on interviews with members of the online I-CAT group. Five considerations stand out: director, handler, supplies, challenges, and support.
Director: The director will likely want to meet with you before approving therapy cat visits. I’m typically asked to provide proof of certification and vaccinations. The director and I will then have a discussion about when I can start, what day and what time will work best, how frequent and how long visits will be, and whether we’ll start in a common room or with one-on-one visits. I’ve always been welcome to bring Rainy to these visits.
I-CAT members recommend that novices start slowly and not overwhelm themselves. When I started, I scheduled weekly visits to seniors in assisted living and typically spent a morning or afternoon hanging out with four to six seniors individually in their rooms for as long as they welcomed a visit. Some seniors were tired after five minutes and others appreciated our staying up to thirty minutes. This routine worked well for both Rainy and I, as we both need time to acclimate to new people, places, and situations. After about a year, we expanded our work to include hospices, libraries, and schools. All of these lasted anywhere from one to three hours.
I-CAT members also advised that when starting out at a new place, handlers rely on the director, who should be able to provide a list of people who will most likely want or need a visit from a cat. On subsequent visits, people can be added or subtracted as needed.
Cat therapy handler Karen Thompson told me, “Having someone who is familiar with and to the residents is nice for the first few visits, until they recognize you as Rainy’s person. Also, that way you can have help if someone decides they want to get a little overenthusiastic and grab or hold on tighter to Rainy.”
Handler: Beyond the work involved with preparing our cats to become certified, it’s easy to overlook other responsibilities we have as handlers. One of those responsibilities is to advocate for our cats. Jennings said, “I don’t allow people to pick up my therapy cat. I hand him to people and say, ‘This is how he likes to be held’ or I place him on their lap and say, ‘This is where he likes to be petted or scratched.’
In addition, it’s important to understand your cat’s body language. When Rainy begins giving me signals that she’s ready to be done for the day (licking of lips, twitching of tail, roaming, climbing into her safe space), then it’s my responsibility to listen to her. Handlers should never risk turning their cats off therapy work by overdoing it.
Another responsibility is to be prepared to talk with the people we visit. I-CAT members suggested that I have stories to share about Rainy, and questions to ask of the people we visit. Stories could include where I got Rainy, funny facts about her, and her favorite things to eat and do. Questions could include: Did they have a cat growing up? What was the cat’s name? Funny things the cat did? Which of their parents liked the cat better? The most important thing is for the questions to be open-ended, as these encourage conversation.
Supplies: All of the following are important to have on hand before starting visits.
- Nail Clippers: to trim Rainy’s nails before visits to reduce the chance that Rainy will snag clothes or accidentally nick someone’s skin
- Carrier/Stroller: for transportation
- Harness & Leash: to provide me with control over Rainy and keep her safe
- Blanket: to protect people we visit from claws
- Basket/Bed: to provide a safe space for Rainy
- Non-Alcoholic Wipes and Sanitizer: to protect people we visit from litter dust and germs
- Grooming Supplies: to provide a way for people to interact with Rainy
- Treats/Toys: to reward Rainy for good behavior and give people the opportunity to interact with her
One I-CAT member also advised me to buy a Love Glove, a mitten that has soft plastic bumps on it. People can be rough but if they are rough with the Love Glove it won’t hurt Rainy. Most brushes have metal or hard plastic which can hurt.
Challenges: According to Terri Jennings, there are several challenges specific to therapy cats. Many facilities and animal therapy groups that welcome therapy dogs don’t accept therapy cats, so it’s important to provide accurate information for therapy cats to gain wider acceptance. She provided me with the following list.
- ALLERGIES: A simple safety precaution is to ask each person if they’d like to meet your therapy cat. Also, all therapy animals are cleaned and groomed before each visit, which helps reduce allergens.
- BITING/SCRATCHING: Therapy animals are required to pass a temperament evaluation before obtaining therapy animal certification. Animals that bite or scratch do not pass.
- DISLIKE OR FEAR OF CATS: Again, a simple precaution to ensure the comfort and safety of people is to ask if they’d like to meet your cat before approaching them.
- THE MISCONCEPTION THAT CATS CAN’T BE TRAINED: When using appropriate motivation and training techniques, training cats is not much different or more difficult than training dogs.
- THE MISCONCEPTION THAT CATS CARRY DISEASES AND/OR PARASITES: Most therapy cats are indoor only and so are exposed to fewer diseases and parasites than therapy dogs that go outside several times daily. Also, therapy cats are tested and treated for diseases and parasites just like therapy dogs.
- SOME THERAPY DOGS REACT NEGATIVELY TO THERAPY CATS: When a therapy dog reacts negatively to a therapy cat it is at risk of losing its certification, which is understandably upsetting to therapy dog handlers. A simple solution is to schedule separate visits to accommodate sensitive therapy animals.
Support: During every step of Rainy and I becoming a cat therapy team, I regularly turned to I-CAT members for advice and encouragement. Without this group, Rainy and I would’ve been alone in our quest, and I doubt we’d be a team today.
If you have questions beyond my article about cat therapy, please free to contact me but also please do join I-CAT’s public education page.