Training Cats to Become Therapy Cats
“I’m so happy to see my favorite cat!” the older gentleman said as Rainy and I entered his room at the senior retirement community. He held out his shaking hand to pet Rainy and said that he had been feeling down and in need of company. After he had stroked Rainy a few times, I asked if he wanted me to place her on his lap. Upon hearing this, he smiled broadly and nodded. I placed Rainy on his lap, where she immediately curled up. He ran his hands through her fur and stroked her, then began to share with me his memories of childhood pets. I listened, while Rainy purred, and we spent the next 15 minutes with the man, who was one of our regulars as part of our cat therapy visits.
Therapy pets benefit the emotional, mental, and physical well-being of people of all ages in all situations. They can help people in retirement centers, hospices, schools, and libraries, to name but a few. In participating libraries, children enjoy reading to a therapy pet without fear of being laughed at when they make mistakes. In participating schools, students benefit from the presence of a therapy pet before and after exams.
The focus of this article will be on therapy cats. The number of therapy cats certified by therapy pet organizations are low. Pet Partners has a total of 9,985 pet therapy teams but a mere 200 of them are cat teams, while Love on a Leash has a total of 2,809 teams but only 63 of them are cat teams. Maybe this just means there’s no need for therapy cats? Or that dogs are more suited to pet therapy? It all comes down to personal preference. Not everyone is a dog person, just as not everyone is a cat person. There are people who will be comforted by the presence of a cat but not by the presence of a dog. There are even people who are afraid of dogs. Therefore, there’s a need for all kinds of therapy pets, not just dogs.
How does one train their cat for therapy? To answer that question, I’ve drawn on my two years of experience and on interviews with a dozen members of the private online International Cat Assisted Therapy (I-CAT) group. Five recommended components of training stand out: harness and leash training, husbandry, socialization, and the building of trust.
Harness and leash training
I’ve met countless cat owners who are excited to tell me how friendly their cats are, only to then hear them reject the pursuit of cat therapy due to a belief that their cat would never tolerate a harness and leash, which therapy pet programs require. For this reason, and because three of the five key components of cat therapy training can be best accomplished outside the home, the ideal training component to start with is harness and leash training.
While it can be challenging to take a cat for a walk, it’s becoming more commonplace. Back in 2006, when I adopted my first cat, she, like so many cats, flopped to the ground and refused to budge when I placed a harness on her. If I’d known then what I know now, I might have persevered. I would have known that cats often balk at anything new, and therefore patience and persistence were required. I would have let her sniff the harness and play with it, all along reinforcing her with treats. I would have then put the harness on her inside our house and rewarded her for tolerating it. And then I would have attached a leash to the harness and encouraged her with treats to walk at my side. Only then, when she was completely comfortable with the harness and leash inside our home, would I have taken her outside. And initially I would have taken her no farther than the porch. And when she was comfortable with that, I’d have taken her down the stairs. And then we’d have explored the yard. And then walked a bit. And so on, progressing slowly but surely. I know all of that now, which is why two of my cats enjoy going for walks.
Other therapy cat handlers I spoke with also expressed the value of harness and leash training. Jenny Litz wrote that as soon as she knew Tye would be hers to adopt, she gave his foster mom a harness and requested that she take him places in it. Sarah Moor said that while her cat Raul instinctively picked up other therapy cat skills, which included being able to sit and stay on a blanket, she did need to teach him to accept a harness. Similarly, Sam Peterson didn’t have to do much other training with Dallan, knowing from the time she got him as a 3-week-old kitten that he was special, but he did need to get trained to accept a harness.
While a cat is becoming comfortable with a harness and leash, there’s another component of cat therapy training that can be addressed because it can be done at home. Husbandry 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.
Pet Partners’ policy is that a therapy pet should have clean eyes and ears, odor-free breath, and groomed hair. They must 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 so that they aren’t sharp or hooked.
Love on a Leash 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 LOAL doesn’t want cats “to accidentally puncture someone’s laps if they decide to jump.”
From the start, I’ve taught two of our cats to accept basic husbandry. (Our third is a former feral cat and a work-in-progress when it comes to her tolerating my fussing.) Husbandry is part of their morning routine, and I always reinforce their cooperation with treats. Each day, I check Rainy’s eyes, clean her ears and teeth, and brush her hair. On the day of a therapy visit, I’ll clip her nails.
The point of cat therapy is to give comfort to people, and therefore the top requirement of therapy cats are that they should be people-friendly. Therapy cat must also do well away from home, as they must visit new places where they’ll encounter new stimuli. Therapy cats may visit retirement communities, hospices, schools, and libraries, to name a few. And in these places, there may be elevators, wheelchairs, unzipping of pencil cases, and wheeling of book carts, to name just a few stimuli.
How does a cat become people-friendly and comfortable in a wide range of environments with a wide range of situations? Some believe that a cat’s personality is innate. “Therapy cats are born, not made,” contends Dana Lesnick Gray. “They either have what it takes, or they don’t. If they don’t, no matter how much training you do, you won’t change their innate personality.”
There’s also research that says that a cat’s personality should be shaped through early handling. According to Science Direct (summarizing Clinical Implications: Sensitive Period in Small Animal Pediatrics), kittens should be handled gently “by as many people as possible for a minimum of five minutes per day” from 2 to 14 weeks of age. In addition, Science Direct said, “Kittens should be held, touched in all areas of the body in a gentle way, picked up frequently, and sometimes gently restrained as they would be during a veterinary examination.”
During this time, Science Direct says that kittens should also be exposed to as many stimuli as possible: new sights, sounds, smells, and situations. When Rainy was a kitten, noises scared her, and so I had doubts about her suitability as a therapy cat. I turned to members of I-CAT for their advice and they offered me tips on how to help Rainy gain confidence. Following their advice, my husband helped me desensitize Rainy to noise. For example, he would drop a spoon from a low height so it barely made a sound when it hit the floor, and then I would give Rainy a treat. The treats taught her not to be afraid of noises: In fact, she learned that sometimes a noise meant food was coming. Gradually, my husband dropped the spoon from greater and greater heights until Rainy was comfortable with the spoon making a loud clatter when it hit the floor. I also invited visitors to clap their hands and other unexpected sounds in Rainy’s presence. Rainy’s training was a group effort.
Of course, many cat owners do not acquire their kittens until they’ve surpassed the prime socialization age. However, kittens can and should continue to be socialized beyond the prime age.
The easiest way to socialize a cat is to expose them to as many new people and situations as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to take the cat outside your home. This can be done once a cat has been harness and leash trained at home.
Most therapy cat owners I talked with told me about ways they had trained their cats to become more social. For example, Cheri Cox acclimated Chico as a kitten to being petted, sitting on laps, and going places. When Chico turned 1 year old, Cox took her to a therapy prep class where everyone practiced going in elevators and taking their pets to an outdoor mall. Jenny Litz acclimated Smokey as a kitten to the social life by taking him to parties, parks, and friends’ houses. Thereby, she helped foster within Smokey a natural love of “going places and meeting people.”
Other therapy cat owners shared similar stories. Tina Parkhurst took Basil for car rides, to pet stores, and to farmer’s markets. The latter, Parkhurst said, exposed Basil to “so many people and other things too.” Darci Timmons took Liza to pet stores, beaches, hiking trails, and city trips—all for the purpose of training Liza to become a therapy cat. Simmons said that the local pet stores served as “a great way to experience new smells, sounds, and sights while being in a more controlled environment.” As part of Sputnik’s training, Sonya Stowers invited lots of friends over, as well as took her cat to stores and shelters to get Sputnik “used to going places, hearing noises, being approached by strangers, and staying calm.”
Early on, besides being fearful of loud noises, Rainy reacted nervously to the sight of people in wheelchairs, the sound of elevators, and the strong smell of some hair products. Because the places we went to for therapy visits were full of so many strange stimuli, I would have to carry her from one client’s room to another because she refused to walk on her own.
Unfortunately, it took me a while to realize the importance of exposing potential therapy cats to a wide variety of experiences. After Rainy and I had been a team for a year, I began to recruit other teams. For months, I parroted to candidates the idea that a therapy cat needed to be friendly, relaxed in new places, and tolerant of a harness. However, I didn’t inquire about the training the team had undertaken. I learned to do this only after I had a team drop out after a security alarm twice frightened the therapy cat into hiding under a patient’s bed.
I asked therapy cat owners to name characteristics that are important for therapy cats to have. Kimberly Edwards’ immediate answer was non-reactivity. She said that she exposed her cat Millie to so many different sounds, smells, and touches that now when Millie is in her harness, she doesn’t react to much of anything. Edwards explained, “My boyfriend is a DJ, so we are constantly playing loud music. There was one bar where he worked that was pet friendly. It was amazing exposure for her, with loud music and loud people who wanted to pet her. At first, she was nervous, and I would hold her close but, after a few days, she was just sitting on my lap happy as could be. There was a malfunction of the fire alarm system once at the group home where we visit, and Millie didn’t even flinch when the alarm went off. She obviously noticed the sounds, but she didn’t have any physical reaction.”
Anne Ross concurred, noting that one of the most rewarding parts of desensitizing her cat Yanni was seeing him become less reactive in public places. “I saw him think a situation through rather than going right into fight or flight mode. I could see him literally turn it off, or rather choose not to flee (or in one case stop fleeing and turn to me) when something loud frightened him. It was very touching to have him turn to me for protection and reassurance rather than run away.”
The last component of therapy cat training is perhaps the easiest to accomplish because to a degree it will be accomplished automatically while pursuing the other four components, and that’s instilling your cat with trust in you.
Terri Jennings explained the importance of trust to me: “It’s impossible to desensitize a cat to everything, so looking to me for direction/assurance is vital.” For that reason, Jennings focuses mostly on teaching her cat Baxter basic commands and earning his trust.
One way to build your cat’s trust is to learn feline body language, so that you can tell when they’re contented and when they’re discontented. Cox advised, “A therapy cat has to have the temperament to enjoy visiting and not be stressed.” Jennings elaborated, “Some therapy cats take more time to feel comfortable in a new environment; go slow and figure out what their preferences are.” For example, Rainy and I once visited a patient whose family always wanted to pick Rainy up to place on their mom’s lap. I could tell from Rainy’s restlessness that she didn’t enjoy the experience and had to eventually cease the visits. In contrast, I visited another patient whom Rainy wanted to sit on her lap from the moment we walked into the room. We visited this patient regularly until the week she died.
Another way to build trust is to provide your cat with a safe place. 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.” Timmons concurred: “We also did a lot of work in training Liza to be comfortable in her travel bag. Liza can now signal to me when she feels uncomfortable and wants into her safe place.”
A third way to build trust is to take time every day for training, whether it is to socialize, walk, care for, or desensitize. Everything you do will help build trust. Ross observed that Yanni becoming less reactive was “a byproduct of training as he began to trust me more. I didn’t specifically set out to get this response from him. It just happened.”
In Janiss Garza’s articles about her therapy adventures with Summer, she has at times stressed the importance of building trust. According to her, “Training one’s cat to be accustomed to all sorts of crazy situations is important, but just as important is creating a bond with the cat. I would just say to 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.”
Happily, my training with Rainy paid off. Even though she stays alert to visitors entering the room of a patient, she also welcomes their attention. And even though she stays alert to sounds in hallways, she also remains calm in the face of security alarms. At one point, I used to decline invitations to visit seniors in a common room because Rainy would shy away from the hustle and bustle. Now common rooms are no longer an obstacle. Finally, I no longer have to carry Rainy from client to client. In fact, Rainy knows the way and insists on leading me.
Interested in learning more about therapy cats? I recommend these Facebook groups:
https://www.facebook.com/TherapyCats/ and https://www.facebook.com/groups/TherapyCats.of.the.world/.
This article is dedicated to the therapy cats across the world, including my own cat Rainy, who challenges me every day to be a better cat owner.
Allison Hunter-Frederick is an Editorial & Publications Coordinator, pet blogger, and cat behavior consultant and trainer. She hosts an animal welfare blog at lincolnpetculture.wordpress.com and regularly contributes to local publications. Her goals are to help strengthen the bond between people and their pets and increase pet retention through education and training. Allison and her husband live with a toy poodle and three cats. Readers can follow their youngest cat on Instagram at RainyTheTherapyCat