When you think of a therapy animal, what comes to mind? Is it an adorable golden retriever seeming to smile at a client, or perhaps you imagine a horse at an equine-assisted facility? The work of these more common therapy animal species is spectacular, but there are other species in the field who are underrepresented, under-explored, and sometimes downright misunderstood! Enter, therapy cats.
Pet Partners has long been championing the ability for our feline friends to play a role in animal-assisted interventions (AAI). As one of the only therapy animal organizations that offers therapy animal team registration to cats and their human handlers, we’ve long talked about the need for more therapy cat awareness matched by empirical investigation on the work of therapy cats.
You can imagine our delight when we were contacted by Cat Person, a company launched in 2020 who offers simple, high-quality cat care reimagined, late last year with an impressive idea in mind. Given Cat Person’s commitment to setting aside 1% of their sales to studying the connection between cats and their people, they were eager to empower a research project exploring the cat-human bond and the special impact of therapy cats. This partnership allowed for the most comprehensive study ever to take place on therapy cats, and the findings were both complex and compelling.
First, it became obvious that therapy cat handlers share deeply meaningful bonds with their cats. Handlers talked about the critical roles that their cats play in supporting their own mental wellness, and they commonly described their motivation to share the benefits of cat companionship within their communities. Realizing that all candidates for AAI should enjoy and not simply tolerate their roles, this study asked handlers a series of questions related to therapy animal welfare. After describing the attributes that handlers looked for to identify cats that are a good fit for the role, they talked about the various ways in which they advocate for their cats during client interactions. In the end, participants explored how volunteering together offered enrichment for their cats, with 82% of the participants reporting that their involvement in therapy animal programming positively impacted their bond.
This research project was unique in the fact that therapy animal handlers were not the only ones who shared perspectives about the impact of their therapy cat visits. Representatives at facilities that offer therapy cat programming were also included, often attributing even more positive outcomes of the intervention than the handlers themselves. Interactions with therapy cats were reported to decrease negative emotional states like depression, anxiety, and loneliness while supporting positive states such as willingness to engage and interact. As one facility contact said, “Our patients and staff love the cats. It provides an opportunity to experience therapy animals for patients who are afraid of dogs.”
Among the nine in-depth themes realized through the project (read the full white paper here), one of the most fascinating findings related to the stereotypes that are so commonly associated with cats and the people who love them. In interview after interview, participants described how shocked people were to see a therapy cat walk down the hallway. Clients who once assumed all cats to be “standoffish” or “unaffectionate” become self-proclaimed “cat-people” after spending time with therapy cats, and many clients talked about how special it felt to be “chosen” by a feline friend.
In the end, this study points to a clear call to action: we need more therapy cat teams! In fact, 100% of the interview participants noted that more therapy cat teams are needed to meet their community’s request for AAI with cats. With most of the cats represented in the study being mature rescue cats, participants challenge fellow cat lovers to consider whether their beloved pets might actually be therapy cats in waiting. It is the hope of Pet Partners and Cat Person that this project will be the impetus for a new wave of therapy cats and an increased appreciation for a truth known intuitively by the millions of cat owners around the globe: cats and people are better together.