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Though the dog renames “man’s best friend,” there’s something about cats that makes them the number-one choice for some therapy situations. Cats tend to be quieter than most dogs, for one thing. They’re smaller, less pushy, and more often content to simply sit on a person’s lap or hospital bed and be gently petted and stroked. And there is one other thing: Dogs just don’t purr. “A cat’s purr stimulates our auditory sense and provides us with a peaceful respite from the mechanical noises that are constantly bombarding our senses,” according to Dr. Allen Schoen. “In our fast-paced lives,” he says, “cats offer us an animal riend, a companion that offers great psycho-social benefits of love and companionship without too many demands.” Maybe that’s one reason cats are now the most popular pet in the United States, with nearly 60% of American households including one or more fluffy felines. It’s been proven that stroking cats and feeling that vibrating purr can lower a person’s blood pressure, help heal heart disease, and reduce stress. Linda Hines, president of the Delta Society, says, “We’ve seen a very definite increase in the number of cats registered in our national pet-partnership program.” Besides the fact that cats just seem naturally soothing to many people, those who have worked with them have found that nursing home patients, in particular, often enjoy grooming and playing with therapy cats. Combing a fluffy coat or buckling a cat’s slender collar can be a great way to practice fine motor skills. But mostly, just cuddling a cat helps many people feel less lonely and depressed. It helps them forget about themselves and their illness, at least for a little while. Even agitated patients often become calm and content when they are with a therapy cat. For many of the same reasons, cats are turning up in therapy programs for children and teens in mental health facilities and group homes. Some facilities keep resident cats and allow patients to help care for them. This promotes responsibility and encourages better concentration, focus, and the ability to follow directions. Both longhaired and shorthaired cats can be therapy animals. What’s most important is that the cat must be calm and should get along well with strangers. A good therapy cat is happy to sit with a person for a long time (Figure 5.1). Often, long-lost memories of Alzheimer’s patients will be stimulated during interactions with a therapy cat. Stroking a cat’s soft fur will often trigger a cascade of memories in elderly people who have begun to forget so much of their past—but memories can’t be rushed. Therapy cats must be at least one year old, since older animals are both calmer and less likely to catch diseases from being out with people and other animals. They must be up-to-date on their vaccinations, be certified by a veterinarian, and complete a training program that includes exposure to loud noises, crowds, dogs, and frequent handling. They’ll also need to pass a temperament test designed just for cats. Often, but not always, retired show cats—which are already used to crowds, noises, and lots of handling— will make the best therapy cats.

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