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Norwich Bulletin - 5/24/2009

Therapy Animals

Animal Assisted Therapy is the use of a variety of animals with specific characteristics to become a fundamental part of a person’s treatment, designed to improve the physical, social, emotional and cognitive functioning of a patient. During the animal therapy time, the therapists will document records and evaluate the patient’s progress.

Many kinds of animals are used in therapy, including dogs, cats, elephants, birds, dolphins, rabbits, lizards and other small animals. These therapy animals are generally referred to as comfort animals. Patients who have continued interaction with a therapy animal, benefit in various ways, such as the comfort of physical contact with animals, reducing lonliness, and increased opportunities for meeting others through the therapy pets. It also gives patients a continued reason for living – the touch of a warm, furry person!

Therapy pets help improve a patient’s motor skills, as well as lower blood pressure and decrease depression. Studies have found that there are improvements in autism, behavioral problems and medical difficulties when they are given continues access to a therapy animal. It is known to reduce anxiety and lonliness as well as increase self esteem. There are educational benefits and even motivational ones as the people enjoying the animals tend to be more willing to be involved in group activity or interact with others who are interacting with the animal.

Doctors, Nurses and Psychologists decide how these animals can be used to help people. They also choose which type of animal will be best for which patient. Then it is up to the volunteers who train their personal pets and give freely of their own time to work with people who need animal comfort either for medical or emotional reasons.

While acknowledging that many different animals are used in animal assisted therapy, its cat therapy that interests me the most because my wonderful cat Milo, was a therapy cat for nursing homes, which, along with other medical facilities, seems to be the major places using cats for therapy and keeping patients company.

Not every cat is right for a therapy program. The cat must work well with people and be able to sit on a lap for a long time. Very mellow, slightly lazy cats who like people do well. For instance a Persian is well suited because of their calm nature and unconditional love. But on the other hand, the intelligent Abyssinian who enjoys people will be able to instinctively know what the patient needs and be willing to do the same, even if he is not one to normally sit still for an extended period of time. This is what is important for the elderly person.

Older people sometimes forget who they are, where they are and why they are wherever they are. But for some reason, they never forget their past pets and sitting peacefully, stroking a cats fur, oftentimes brings back memories from the past as well as provides some relief from lonliness. Many times patients who no longer show emotion or speak, would pet Milo with a smile on their face and talk about their last kitty – their memories of a cat they loved and miss. It is heartbreaking and yet, heartwarming.

A good candidate cat for assisted animal therapy should be at least a year old and have a good and gentle personality. Since they will be working in nursing homes or hospitals, they may be exposed to a variety of germs that could actually get them sick. Older cats are less likely to get sick in this type of setting and should be up to date on all of their shots.

The cats and their owners go through a training program, which includes being exposed to loud noises, crowds and frequent handling. We have actually found that cats who enjoy showing are good candidates for therapy cats as they are exposed to all of these things and more. After training, the cat and his human will go with a therapist to the facility and meet the patients and work their magic. After all, pets are an important part of most of our lies and that includes the senior citizens that can no longer have their pet because of their living circumstances. But by participating in a cat therapy program, they can have that pet once more for a little while each week.

Helping Paws has always had therapy cats involved with them. Our first therapy cat Milo, taught us how important these cats can be. He is very missed by many. We have two wonderful therapy cat families in our organization, and next week we will give you a little peek into each one of their lives.

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