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Purrviding mental wellbeing: cats as therapy animals

A cat provides comfort at the Rose Physical Therapy Group, USA. Photo: Damon Bowe

At a New York care home for people with Alzheimer’s disease, an elderly female resident tries in vain to find her long-deceased parents. She becomes increasingly distressed but rather than being sedated is given an elaborate toy cat that responds to her touch and purrs. As she pats the robot cat, a sense of calm returns to her recently imploding world.

In Australia, more than 62% of households own a pet. It’s not that long ago that the idea of companion animals making an important contribution to human well-being, especially mental health, would have been dismissed as, well, all a bit fluffy. Now there is a growing body of evidence that animal-human interactions can promote a sense of calm, improved self-worth and reduce anxiety, depression and loneliness. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the benefits of these interactions are gaining traction, not only in households, but also in various therapeutic settings such as nursing homes and hospitals. Animal-assisted therapy is helping to improve patients’ mental, physical, social and emotional functioning.

The terms ‘therapy animal’ and ‘assistance animal’ are often used interchangeably. While definitions and norms differ from country to country, fundamentally they are two different things. In general, assistance animals are dogs or other animals that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. In Australia, only assistance animals are legally defined and protected under disability discrimination laws. Examples include guide dogs for the blind and, particularly in the United States, ‘psychiatric service’ dogs to assist ex-service personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dogs have been used as assistance and therapy animals for some time. The role of cats as therapy animals is not yet at such a developed stage, probably by virtue of their independence, sharp claws and general reluctance to enter a cat carrier!

However, the tide might be starting to turn. In South Australia, a community based provider of psychological treatment programs has established “Australia’s first Cat Relaxation Room” in which three trained therapy cats complement mindfulness activities, mediation and yoga.

Over in New York, like many patients with memory loss, the distressed woman is only intermittently aware that her feline comforter is a toy. It might not be real therapy cat but it’s providing safe and real therapeutic benefits. And perhaps that’s all that really matters.


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