by Soojin Um
Ask any cat lover and they will all agree: cats do wonders for the soul. There is nothing more calming than a cat snuggled up next to you, purring softly. In recent years, cats have been used to comfort patients in hospitals and nursing homes. Young and old alike find comfort in cuddling with a cat in times of stress, of pain, or just plain loneliness. Whether it’s a young child who’s nervous about getting her tonsils out, or an old man nearing the end of his life, therapy cats let them know that it’s all right, that they won’t have to face their uncertainties alone, that they’re loved. All with just a snuggle and a purr.
In Providence, Rhode Island, a cat named Oscar lives at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. It is a nursing home facility that houses many terminally ill patients. Oscar has an incredible sense that allows him to know when a patient is on his or her last hours of life. When he detects the end is near, he will curl up with the patient and not leave until the passing. He has been so accurate that the staff members now call the family members of the patients that Oscar is caring for. His prediction has allowed over a hundred families to say their final goodbyes and be with their loved ones. It has been an immeasurable gift for so many people. Oscar is now a celebrity in his own right, and he has inspired other nursing facilities to get therapy cats for their own patients.
More than just end-of-life patients, therapy cats have shown that there may be health benefits from their presence. The most noted benefit is lowering of blood pressure. A research project reported in Scientific American stated that subjects who had their pet with them while performing a difficult task had lower blood pressure than if they were alone doing the same task. Interestingly, the article also stated that being with a friend had less effect on blood pressure than the pet.
Another benefit is alleviating depression and loneliness. This is especially seen in nursing home patients who miss their families, or patients who realize they are no longer able to care for themselves. Caring for an animal can give them a sense of strength again, which increases their sense of self-worth and happiness. There’s also the simple pleasure of holding a cat that can make us forget about our daily struggles, even if it’s for a short while.
There is, however, a movement to limit therapy animals from hospitals because of the possibility of infections. A hospital sees a great variety of illnesses, and the need for a sterile environment is paramount. This is the view of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA), who recommend that hospitals limit animals to highly trained service dogs only and exclude cats. Some hospitals follow SHEA’s guidelines, others do not (yet). Also, this does not apply to nursing homes and therapy clinics where the threat of infection is much lower.
As much as patients love having cats around to give them company, perhaps you would find it rewarding to have your cat provide this joy to people. If you think you might be interested in training your cat (as well as yourself) to be a certified for animal assisted therapy (AAT), there are many resources online where you can find information. Most cities have certification training programs. Of course, there are requirements that your cat has to meet, and not all cats will have the temperament to be good therapy animals. It might be helpful to call a local organization and inquire about what it takes. You could provide a great service to your community.
We all know cats are lovable, but perhaps we never realized just how powerful of an effect their love can have. They comfort us, make our days brighter, and all by just being there for us. In that, cats show us how to be better people.
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