(BPT) - You're probably familiar with therapy dogs visiting hospitals, schools, senior centers and nursing homes to help alleviate stress and provide comfort in times of need. But did you know that time spent with therapy cats provides scientifically proven emotional benefits as well? A white paper by Pet Partners found that therapy animals have been shown to decrease levels of general anxiety and alleviate symptoms of depression.
While it may take a sociable and easygoing cat to become a therapy cat, cats in general make ideal therapy animals and are a great alternative to therapy dogs. Plus, their smaller size and affinity for sitting on laps and cuddling can make them a good option for quieter environments and people who have limited mobility.
At Pet Partners, the largest therapy pet organization in the U.S., the Therapy Animal Program has had more than 1,500 cats registered over the years and currently has more than 140 registered cat teams.
Shining a light on the benefits of therapy cats for seniors
While everyone has experienced the emotional toll of recent world events, seniors have been especially impacted due to extended periods of isolation and increased loneliness. A study published in the National Library of Medicine found that decreased social life and fewer in-person social interactions during the pandemic were associated with reduced quality of life and increased depression.
Therapy animal visits play a crucial role in helping during times of hardship. The Pet Partners white paper showed that therapy animals, including therapy cats, can especially comfort those with dementia, promoting socialization and engagement, and decreasing depression, anxiety and irritability in seniors. Time spent with cats can be a stimulating and highly engaging form of therapy — boosting mental health and enhancing one's sense of well-being. And while nothing replaces the emotional connection of petting a cat, research by Pet Partners also reveals that even engaging with virtual pet content can still be impactful.
To provide more seniors with access to the benefits of therapy cats, Purina Cat Chow partnered with Pet Partners and the Institute on Aging, a non-profit dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for aging adults, to offer free virtual therapy cat visits for seniors over age 60. In addition, Cat Chow is providing up to $25,000 in financial support to Pet Partners to support the cats in their Therapy Animal Program so more people can experience their therapeutic benefits.
The mental health benefits of therapy cat visits
Pet Partners therapy cat handler Tracy Howell has seen firsthand the impact therapy cat visits can have.
"During my time as a therapy cat handler volunteer, we have had the opportunity to visit locations from nursing facilities and assisted living centers, to Children's Hospitals and universities," said Howell about her cats Roger and Sal. "Cats have the unique ability to draw people out like no other interactions can. During a visit to a senior living facility, we were with a group of seniors who were taking turns petting Roger when a woman came up and joined the group and said she liked cats. A nurse later told me that the woman had never joined the group before or spoken much to anyone there!"
Howell loves to see how her cats affect others. "It is such a joy to be able to share your animal with other people and watch their faces light up," she said. "I think therapy cat visits make them feel special. For those having a hard day, once you see the ways you can relieve or distract them from their hardship, even for a few moments, it's one of the most rewarding experiences."
And it's not just the people who benefit — the cats enjoy their experience as well. "Roger purrs nonstop the whole time he is there," said Howell. "I really think he's into the healing properties of purrs!"
To learn more about the healing power of cats, how you can get involved, and how Cat Chow is helping, visit CatChow.com/therapy.