Animals are good for the soul. Dogs, horses and, increasingly, cats are used in animal-supported therapy. But how exactly can therapy cats help sick people and what requirements do cats need in order to do so?
Therapy cats: how cats help sick people
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Cats are a balm for the soul.
It doesn't matter to a cat whether a human is old, sick or disabled. The main thing is that the human treats it well. A cat has no hidden agenda and its affection is always sincere and transparent. This unconditional acceptance is a balm for the human soul – especially when they have suffered.
Cats as therapists
Psychotherapists have recognised the positive effect of animals on patients with mental illnesses. Hence, dogs, horses or llamas are used in animal-supported therapy. Cats too are becoming more and more popular as co-therapists. Due to their empathetic nature, cats are particularly good for the soul.
Cats have a reassuring effect on many patients through their mere presence in the practice. The way they sleep peacefully curled up on the couch in the therapist's office or sniff out a new patient in a friendly manner contribute to reducing anxiety and establishing trust.
Cats also act as an ice-breaker. Conversations flow easier if the therapist and patient have first been able to chat harmlessly about a cat. Challenging issues are more likely to be addressed after starting like this.
Four-legged therapists have proved particularly helpful with anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Endorphins from contact with cats
The beneficial influence of cats on the human soul can be scientifically proven. Researchers have discovered that the human brain emits more endorphins upon stroking a cat. At the same time, the production of stress hormones is reduced.
A cat's purr can reduce blood pressure and therewith the risk of suffering from a heart attack, as a study from the Stroke Centre of the University of Minnesota demonstrates. The human brain reacts to purring by emitting serotonin.
Therapy cats for children
Children in particular benefit from animal-supported therapy. For example, children with autism often have difficulties communicating with other people. They tend to take things literally and have problems interpreting human emotions.
Cats, on the other hand, take these little patients as they are. Ambiguity, ulterior motives and irony are alien to them. They communicate their emotions in a direct manner. These characteristics make communication easier for children and help them to open up.
Therapy cats are also used to treat children suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Cats help them to calm down and focus their attention.
Cats in nursing homes
Contact with cats proves enriching both for old people and for those with mental illnesses. We used to be sceptical towards cats in nursing homes: animals were too much work and were considered unhygienic.
This has changed, because we have recognised the beneficial effect that animals can have on old people in particular. In some homes, old people can now move in with their pet. Other facilities have their own cats or make sure that a therapist regularly visits with a cat.
Therapy cats in nursing homes bring variety to the day-to-day routine and provide a topic of conversation for the residents. They offer physical proximity and warmth to inhabitants suffering from loneliness. Cats can lie on their lap and snooze for hours – ideal for people in wheelchairs, for instance.
Cats help with dementia and Alzheimer's
It has been proven that the presence of a cat improves the attentiveness, communication and empathy of old people with dementia in nursing homes.
The nursing home Catalina Springs Memory Care in Arizona started a special project a few years ago, with the residents suffering from Alzheimer's taking care of orphan cats from the local animal shelter. The kittens needed to be fed by bottle several times per day. Although there were initially doubts whether they would be up to the task, the old people really blossomed when it came to taking care of the kittens.
Which cats make suitable therapy cats?
What requirements do felines need to meet in order to be therapy cats? Age, breed and gender play no role here.
It's primarily a question of character whether a cat makes a suitable co-therapist. Therapy cats should above all not be scared of humans. They should be used to contact with humans from their early childhood and feel very much at ease in human company.
Very important: therapy cats cannot pose a danger to their patients in any way. Even if a patient is heavy-handed with them, they may not bite or scratch. Hence, only cats that are very patient and fond of humans are suitable.
Therapy cats that visit several facilities have to cope with changes in location and have no fear of the carry case.
Therapy cats have to be in good health
Cats that work as co-therapists have to be in good health. Since they come into contact with old or sick, they need to be dewormed regularly and receive all required vaccinations.
In addition, they shouldn't be fed with the BARF (raw meat) method. Cats that eat raw meat can be dangerous for humans with a weak immune system.