Lap cats can have therapeutic powers

When their patient received a terminal cancer diagnosis, the staff at the Oregon nursing and rehabilitation facility where he was cared for offered him anything he wanted: cupcakes and ice cream for every meal, a pile of puppies to play with or anything else he could name.

“All I want is to have a cat on my lap again,” he said.

Basil to the rescue. The orange-and-white tabby, one of only 100 or so therapy cats recognized by therapy animal organization Pet Partners, made regular visits to the man for the last four weeks of his life.

“That was really special to me,” says Tina Parkhurst of Beaverton, Ore., who fostered and then adopted Basil and her brother, Mac, after they were found in a field when they were about 2 weeks old.

Though not as numerous as therapy dogs, therapy cats throughout the country provide people of all ages and health conditions with unconditional love and comfort. Their visits can help improve patients’ mobility, memory, communication, pain management and self-esteem, or simply make them smile and laugh. Often, people reminisce about previous cats in their lives.

Parkhurst was familiar with the concept of therapy cats when she began fostering Basil and Mac. She recognized special qualities in their personalities that made her wonder if they would be suitable for the work. They connected easily with people and had calm natures. Basil seemed a little more fearless than Mac, so Parkhurst began training her first, teaching her to wear a harness and leash and taking her on visits to a big box pet supply store. Eventually, they went through the Pet Partners training program, earning a perfect score in the evaluation.

Now Basil and Parkhurst make visits to facilities two or three times a week. Basil gets a bath before every visit, and she’s trained to sit on a towel that is placed on a bed or someone’s lap. To entertain residents, she sits up on her hind legs and gives a high-five. But her best “trick” is her ability to help people relax. Parkhurst recalls one woman suffering from dementia whose daughter had invited them to visit.

Because of her dementia, the woman had become increasingly aggressive and agitated, unable to sleep despite heavy doses of medication. When Basil came to visit, the woman was sitting in a recliner, her daughter at her side.

“I asked if she would like to have Basil on her lap,” Parkhurst says. “She said, ‘That would be nice.’ I put Basil’s blanket on her lap, put Basil down and in three minutes this woman who would not sleep unless she was heavily medicated was crashed out like a light. Basil was out like a light, too. Her daughter sat there and quietly cried. She said, ‘My mom hasn’t slept like this in weeks and weeks.’ 

Because they are people-friendly in a variety of settings, many active or retired show cats make therapy visits, but any cat with a friendly, calm nature can become a therapy cat with the right training. Appropriate handling and socialization in kittenhood, with exposure to many different people, places, sounds and experiences, can help cats develop a therapeutic personality.

One woman told Parkhurst, “I wake up smiling on Sundays now because I know I’m going to get to see Basil.”

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