Cats are not typically seen as therapy animals, and I think this is due to two reasons:
1.) Dogs do such a great job already
2.) There is a misconception that cats aren’t sweet, cuddly, or calm
That said, Sooshi is all of the above. In December of 2016, I adopted her at the Mega Pet Adoption at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds. She was only 1.9 lbs and 6 weeks old when I first saw her in her foster mom’s arms. She told me that she was found as a feral, had to be treated for FPV, and her name was “Hope.” It was love at first sight.
I had gone there specifically to adopt a cat to “train” as a therapy animal as I had attempted to get my 13-year-old chihuahua/dachshund dog Daisy registered, but she was unable to cooperate with other dogs. Being more of a cat person, I got the idea of switching species and felt that it was high time that they got the respect they should as being the nurturing creatures they are.
Hope, later renamed Sooshi, is very comfortable walking on a leash and in a harness. This, in itself, is a huge attention-getter when I walk into a facility or any public place. People of every age are fascinated and entertained when they see her strolling casually through a building. One of the most rewarding parts of being the first therapy cat team in Northeast Florida is watching hospice patients’ faces light up when they see us both walk in. A primary focus of pet therapy is to pleasantly distract an individual who is going through a difficult illness or situation, even for just a few minutes. There is no greater privilege for me than to be able to give someone in distress a few moments of peaceful interaction with both Sooshi and me. We are on this earth to be of service to others and the highest calling for me is to be a comfort to others in their final days. Some people have asked how I can be around such a depressing environment; when Sooshi and I enter a room, the look of delight on people’s faces is priceless. Our visits help them to escape chronic thinking about their situation and enjoy one of God’s many wonderful creatures. Most times, I think I get more out of it than the patient does.
Sooshi’s pioneer visit was to an elderly woman with dementia at the Brookdale Southside facility. She had cats her whole life and loved them. When her nurses found this out, they reached out to Community Hospice and I was contacted. Upon entering the room, the patient was surprised to see her on a leash and asked if Sooshi was a dog or cat? After a brief introduction, I sat next to her and asked if I could place Sooshi’s little bed on her lap so she could pet her. She quickly agreed and immediately began petting Sooshi. We were there for an hour and a half! Even though the patient talked loudly, used hand gestures, and even shifted around at times, Sooshi stayed sweetly and calmly on her bed enjoying all of the attention. When it was time to leave, the patient asked if we could come back again … a good day indeed.
The secret to my success is that I’ve spent a lot of time with Sooshi and I know her. I know where she likes to be rubbed and where she does not. I can easily read her moods and body language and will cut a visit short if she shows any signs of stress or boredom. During my visits, I keep laminated cards with me which show how to pet a cat. I have both an adult’s and child’s version for people to look at while they are waiting their turn to pet Sooshi. Her visiting bed is a small oval kennel pillow which she hangs out on when she’s in the car, so she sees it as a safe place. When I place it on someone’s lap, it’s a cue for her to sit or lie down, making her easy to pet.
Sooshi and I had to pass 21 exercises to get our complex rating as a Pet Partners registered therapy animal team. Some of the exercises were to determine how much she didn’t react to different scenarios we might encounter on visits such as a metal pan dropping on the ground behind her or wheelchairs coming toward her. Basically, she was tested on her ability to do nothing and she did an incredible job.
I look forward to years of therapy visits to come with Sooshi. She truly is a blessing to so many people.
Story submitted by Lorri M. Reynolds