What is a Therapy Cat & What Do They Do?

Dr. Ragen T.S. McGowan, PhD
By Dr. Ragen T.S. McGowan, PhD
Updated: 5/10/20242-4 minutes
A woman is holding a cat

Therapy cats are certified pets who can help people cope with anxiety, illness and disorders.  

If you have a feline companion at home, it may not surprise you to learn that cats are used in this way. Whether they’re cuddling you or nudging you for a treat, just spending a few minutes with a cat can reduce stress.  

This experience correlates with research showing that interacting with felines can have positive effects on our mental and emotional health.* (Their impact on kids can also be significant.) 

If you want to learn more about cats as therapy animals, including where to register your pet as one, read on.  

Can Cats Be Therapy Animals?

Yes, cats can be therapy animals. Like dogs, horses and other animals, spending time with a cat can be an effective form of animal-assisted therapy.  

With this type of therapy, people dealing with a health issue or mental disorder interact with an animal (in a supervised setting) as part of their treatment process.  

Cats can be appealing as therapy animals for people who don’t like dogs. They may be a good choice for patients with limited mobility as well, as many enjoy curling up in people’s laps.  

Felines also have a reputation for being particular about whom they interact with. For some people, cuddling with a therapy cat may reinforce a sense of self-worth.  

What is a Therapy Cat?

While many felines can be calming, therapy cats have been trained to do therapy work, which may include using their natural instincts to provide comfort.  

Typically, therapy cats are gentle and outgoing. Calmness is also important, as they engage with different kinds of people in varying environments. Felines who startle easily or react to noises or scents might not be ideal for the job.  

To avoid spreading infection, these cats should be healthy and well-groomed. Clean skin and coat and trimmed nails are important not only for appearances but for the safety of patients as well.  

What Happens in Cat Animal Therapy?

During cat animal therapy, the pet’s handler brings them to a destination to meet with patients.  

Common places for pet therapy include nursing homes, hospitals, universities, penitentiaries and more.  

Activities vary but can include petting, cuddling, grooming and playing with the therapy cat.  

Are Cats Good Therapy Animals? 

Yes, cats can be excellent therapy animals. Feline-assisted therapy has had positive effects on patients with numerous diseases including arthritis, autism, AIDS, ADHD, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and more.  

Some of the benefits of cat animal therapy include: 

  • Help With Depression. Interacting with a therapy animal like a cat can trigger the release of endorphins in our bodies, which create a sense of well-being.
  • Reduced isolation. Time with a therapy cat can provide companionship, which alleviates loneliness, especially among seniors.
  • Relief from dementia. Patients with Alzheimer's disease can experience decreases in depression and agitation, and increased relaxation during animal-assisted activities.
  • Cardiovascular health. Therapy cats are shown to lower blood pressure and, after long-term exposure, protect against heart disease.       

Can Cats Be Support Animals?

Yes, cats can be support animals, but an emotional support cat is different from a therapy cat. The former helps reduce stress and anxiety in their owner, but they haven’t received any formal training as a support animal.  

Therapy cats have received training and socialization to provide comfort and support. Often, facilities that participate in animal-assisted therapy require animals to be certified and have liability insurance.  

Can I Register My Cat as a Therapy Animal? 

If you think your cat may make a good therapy animal, there are organizations that offer training and evaluation for certification, such as Pet Partners. Remember, as their handler, you are part of the therapy team as well. 

Have more questions about the impacts of cats on our lives? Visit our Expertise page for insight from our pet experts.  

 

*Case, L. P. (2003). Benefits of Living with Cats. In The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition & Health (pp. 103-105). Blackwell Publishing. 

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