At first, cats seem like unlikely therapy animals because they are fiercely independent and affectionate on their own terms. However, cats are gaining popularity in the animal assisted activity (hereafter known as AAA) world because of their ability to increase the attention spans of patients with ADHD, autism, and Alzheimer’s disease. Plus, petting a purring kitty has been shown to release relaxing chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin in the brain.
According to research and work done by 1 FUR 1 Foundation’s grant recipient Treehouse Humane Society, their mission is to teach people how they can rehabilitate homeless cats, but they also have volunteer programs where the cats and humans help each other out. They write on their website, “As the volunteers are educating residents on topics of animal welfare, and fostering organic social interactions with the residents, the AAT cats are also benefiting from these visits! Not only do these cats gain valuable experiences by having their nails trimmed before every visit, and being transported in a car, but the cats have the opportunity to be in novel situations where they may meet people that have little to no understanding of how to appropriately interact with a cat. All in all, it’s a win-win situation for the residents, the volunteers, and the cats.”
Now, an important thing to note with the cats’ hospital visits is that new guidelines state that cats cannot participate in animal assisted therapy (AAT) in hospitals because, according to LiveScience, “Cats should be excluded [. . . ] because they cannot be trained to reliably provide safe interactions with patients in the health care setting.” Even well-behaved and mild-mannered cats may bite and scratch the people they’re supposed to help, plus cats may carry more diseases such as toxoplasmosis. Furthermore, more people report allergies to cat dander rather than dog dander. Therefore therapy involving cats is referred to as AAA rather than AAT, because AAT programs involve hospitals.
Still, AAA involving cats have proved invaluable to patients such as Iris Grace, a five-year-old girl with autism. Her Maine Coon cat, Thula, helps Iris Grace strengthen her communication skills. According to the Buzzfeed Animals article about the pair’s bond, “Before Thula, Iris’ mother attempted to use the “gold star routine” to reward good behavior. Iris was horrified, though, when a gold star sticker would be removed from the paper. The stickers were stowed away in a safe place until one afternoon when Iris went in and pulled one off the paper, placing it on Thula’s forehead.” Thula also watches patiently as Iris Grace paints colorful abstract compositions. Iris Grace’s mother says that the combination of the therapy cat companion and art has helped Iris Grace improve leaps and bounds in her self-expression.
Cats also make good therapy animals for people with anxiety and depression. They are calm, compact animals that listen without judgment. As with Iris Grace above, people who have social anxiety or trouble communicating with other people find solace in a cat companion. According to a study coming from the United Kingdom, cat owners anthropomorphize their cats, which means that they assign human thoughts and feelings to their cats and feel that their cats are attuned to their emotions as well, which strengthens the bond between cat and owner. Additionally, despite the “crazy cat lady” stereotype, an Australian study found that female cat owners report higher levels of mental health satisfaction than non-pet owners.