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Guest post: In the “Meow”: The Story of a Therapy Cat

Stitches the Therapy Cat (transcribed by her personal assistant Nikki Christopher)
A large fluffy tortie-tabby cat lying on a bed with a toy
A large fluffy tortie-tabby cat lying on a bed with a toy

Pet Partners is pleased to present this guest post from one of our therapy cat teams. Stitches and her handler Nikki Christopher became a Pet Partners team in 2017 and Stitches gained attention for her work at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. We asked Stitches (with Nikki’s assistance) to share some information on her background, activities, and what it takes to be a successful therapy cat.

In the “Meow”

The Story of a Therapy Cat

A fluffy brown tortie-tabby cat lying contentedly on a bed with a toy
Photo by Nikki Christopher

My name is Stitches. I’m famously known as “Stitches the Therapy Cat”—the therapy cat for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport! People may know my fame, or maybe a little about my work, but I’d like to tell you a little more about the kitty in the stroller, the kitty with the irresistible tummy and extremely good looks.

When I was a tiny baby of about a week old, my litter was found after a huge tornado. Some people were keeping an eye on us and realized that after the storm our cat mommy wasn’t coming back. We were taken to a really nice human couple who fed us with bottles and took care of us as we grew big enough to go to forever homes. So I got used to humans early and came to my forever home as a kitten.

One of my humans is a private music teacher, so from the start I had lots of visitors who played with me and gave me cuddles and pets. I learned what things in the human world were worth my worry, and what was just silly human stuff. I really like doorbells! They mean I’m going to get lots of attention.

It didn’t take very long for me to understand that I had the power of cuteness over humans, so I demanded that they acknowledge this often. For instance, when construction was happening on the back of our house, I was baffled that those people didn’t come through the wall and pet me! I could hear them banging and drilling, but only a few times did they give me proper attention.

When I was about eight years old, my human grandpaw became a patient in a nursing home. I really wanted to give him cuddles and purrs, but he lived too far away. My human was going to volunteer at a nearby nursing home so one of her students could play for patients. She asked if she could try bringing me to visit with the people there, since I couldn’t visit with my own grandpaw. So we tried it.

I wasn’t sure AT ALL what was going on during my first visit. I was put in a brand-new carrier (not the one I ride in to go to the yucky vet), and taken to a strange living room. People were really nice, but I wasn’t sure what that meant—until suddenly we were back home. After I got out of my carrier at home, I understood that I was at this other place to get cuddles, and so I yelled at the door to go back! I tried this for about an hour, and my human said that we would go back next week.

Not long after she realized that I liked doing this, my human learned more about visits and therapy cats. We did an evaluation for Pet Partners to show them how good I was at doing this…and then I was officially a therapy cat! We went back to the nursing home every week and I got to lie in bed and watch TV (one of my favorite activities) with really nice people. We did this for a little over two years.

In addition to visiting the nursing home, I have been able to go to schools, churches, workplaces, the Minnesota State Fair, and many other fun places!

In the fall of 2019, we were contacted by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Foundation. They were looking to add a cat to their fleet of Animal Ambassadors. Before me, there had been only doggies doing this job. I later found out that I was only the second cat in the country to be a therapy animal at a major airport!

Video courtesy of MSP Airport

The MSP Airport had me come to do a trial visit before making it official. The airport can be a noisy place; there is lots of activity, a strange room with machines with conveyor belts that looked at my stuff, many smells (like pizza and chicken…yum), and to be honest lots of temptations to jump into bags and suitcases. There were many important people from the airport watching my visit to see how I liked it and how the people in the airport liked me. People were taking selfies with me, kids wanted to kiss me, and the employees were so excited to have a kitty to visit. The airport even made a promotional video! I loved my visit and the people. The other strange stuff didn’t really bother me because I got loads of attention wherever I went.

There are lots of great doggies that also visit the airport. I’m friends with a few of them and pretend to feel bad when people say that they’re excited to see a cat. People often tell me that they always see dogs doing therapy work, especially at airports, but never a cat! I try to take it diplomatically, offering my tummy, but I’m actually purring in agreement.

A therapy cat reading a book titled Inside Your Dog's Mind
Photo by Sara Ernst, Senior Manager of Volunteer Programs for Airport Foundation MSP, provided by Nikki Christopher

People often ask my human how she trained me to be a therapy cat. Ha! They should ask me how I trained my human to be a therapy animal assistant! Some people don’t understand how cats are different than dogs. Doggies like to be led: eased into situations, acclimated, told how to do something by adding more layers to the task. But cats work differently.

  • I’m a cat. (Did you see I put a period there?)
  • I need to know what we’re doing—what does this mean?
  • I have the choice of participating in a certain task and to what extent. (See that period again?)

Cats before me did good groundwork with my human: teaching her to use communication, especially verbal, to let me know what is going on. This happens with talking about my food, when I have to wait for something that will happen soon (like going out on the porch or getting food), and even what is going to happen later in the day or tomorrow. She tells me the night before we go anywhere where we’re going the next day. I like this. Not only do I get excited about “Going to go to work at the airport tomorrow,” but I also appreciate and feel better about “Going to the vet tomorrow” when I’m told ahead of time. I like knowing what is happening. I’m really the one in charge in this relationship; my human knows that preparing me for things will more likely lead to my approval, and at the least my likely cooperation.

People petting a therapy cat in a stroller, while a therapy dog team watches
Photo by Nikki Christopher

Life with humans can be tricky. I feel that my job as a therapy cat is an important one. Many people need my work—they need the experience of petting and visiting with me and to have contact with an exceptional being such as a cat to improve their well-being. I hope my story persuades other kitties, who also have well-trained humans, to see their potential in this field!


Updated June 24, 2022: Sadly, Stitches passed away on June 23 due to an aggressive cancer. Nikki shared the story of Stitches’ final day on Instagram. She also shared this with Pet Partners:

“She just completed her registration renewal. She tested at the highest scores at our evaluation! She’s been really close to it in the past, but this time she seemed to get “Unconcerned” wherever possible on her scoresheet. ???? The illness wasn’t what put her in the top category, it was her experience and ability to communicate with me.  Trust me, she was rolling her eyes at some of the tasks!”

Nikki asked that we update this post but leave it available so everyone can remember Stitches and her work, and learn from the experience Nikki gained about what makes a successful therapy cat. Our heartfelt condolences go to Nikki and everyone whose life was touched by Stitches.