Therapy catsWhen it comes to helping people, dogs get all the glory. It’s not hard to find awwww-inspiring photos of dogs helping vision-impaired people across the street, warning owners of an upcoming seizure or dutifully carrying the newspaper to the disabled.

But what about therapy cats? Do cats just lack the altruism gene? Did their reputation for being aloof inspire the saying, “Everyone needs a dog to adore him and a cat to ignore him”? Many cats, as it turns out, do help people — just on their own terms.

Therapy Cats vs. Service Animals

A service animal, as defined by the American Disabilities Act, is a dog or miniature horse trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. Although many cats can be trained, they generally aren’t, as yet, considered service animals.

Still, cats have a lot to offer. A purring cat can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and trigger the release of oxytocin, the feel-good “cuddle hormone.” Children raised with cats may be less likely to develop allergies. By providing companionship and nonjudgmental affection, cats can also help relieve depression and loneliness.

That’s why, more and more, cats are being used as therapy animals. Unlike service animals, which tend to live with the patient, therapy animals generally stop by for a visit, whether it’s at a nursing home, prison or physical therapy facility.

Animal-Assisted Therapy vs. Animal-Assisted Activities

Therapy cats tend to fall into two categories. The first is used for animal-assisted therapy (AAT). In these cases, a health or human services professional creates a goal-oriented plan to meet specific physical, emotional, cognitive or social needs of a patient.

In a physical therapy setting, for example, handling a cat may help a patient regain motor skills following a hand surgery. A therapist may choose to include a cat in a therapy session to help, for example, extend the attention span of a child with autism spectrum disorder.

The second CATegory of feline-aided therapy is called animal-assisted activity (AAA). In these cases, the aim is generally to improve the patient’s quality of life. Often, the handler is the cat’s owner who has been through training and has had the cat certified. The handler may bring the cat to places like rehabilitation facilities, schools and nursing homes.

In patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s, for instance, cats have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, soothe agitation and decrease feelings of isolation. When real cats aren’t available, long-term care facilities have even taken to using battery-operated cats. Petting the soft fur may calm patients, and built-in sensors respond to touches by triggering the robotic cat to purr, close its eyes or roll over on its back.

The Making of a Therapy Cat

Organizations like Pet Partners help screen cats and train volunteers to become therapy teams. Typically, they look for cats with calm, laid-back temperaments who are gentle and tolerant of being handled by different people in various environments. Retired show cats, for example, tend to make good therapy cats because they’re used to frequent handling and noisy surroundings.

Cats should usually be at least one year old, current on vaccines and considered healthy, based on a veterinary exam. Once the cat is certified and the owner has been trained, the team may make supervised visits before they are free to make visits on their own.

Think your cat has what it takes to be a therapy cat? Check out Pet Partners or look for feline therapy organizations near you.