There is a lot of research on other therapy animals such as dogs, but there is often a “shock factor” involved with therapy cats because many are unaware of their existence.
Every morning, Juanita Mengel removes the silicone coating of her prosthetic leg from under a heated blanket so that the metal parts of the artificial limb won’t feel so cold on her skin when she ties the pieces together.
The 67-year-old Ohio resident then does the same for her five-year-old tortoiseshell cat, Lola-Pearl, who is missing her left hind leg.
The duo is one of approximately 200 therapeutic cat teams registered in the United States through Pet Partners.
The nonprofit organizes owners and their pets as teams of volunteers who provide animal-assisted therapies such as visits to hospitals, nursing homes or schools.
What is pet therapy?
Pet or animal therapy it is a kind of therapeutic intervention that incorporates specially selected and trained animals.
“A therapy animal is an animal that has been evaluated on its ability to meet new people and not just tolerate interaction, but actively enjoy it,” says Taylor Chastain Griffin, national director of Patient-Assisted Intervention Development animals at Pet Partners.
The organization registers nine different species as therapy animals: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, birds, pigs, llamas and alpacas.
As part of her research, Chastain Griffin studies the impact of therapy cats and says more research needs to be done.
There is a lot of research on other similar therapy animals dogsshe says, but there’s often a “shock factor” involved with therapy cats because many don’t know they exist.
“They walk into an environment and people are like, ‘Whoa, there’s a cat on a leash. What’s going on?’” Chastain Griffin says.
“It kind of inspires people to connect in a way that we haven’t traditionally heard about in other therapeutic animal interventions.”
An amputee cat-human couple
Owner Mengel says she knew Lola-Pearl would make a good therapy cat after taking her to an amputee coalition conference on a whim about a month after adopting the pet shorthair.
“She was so good with people that I just knew it would be good therapy cat” says Mengel. “People were really attracted to her, too.”
During a recent visit to a limb loss support group meeting, Mengel pushed Lola-Pearl in a stroller — labeled “Therapy Cat” — so attendees could pet the kitten as she woke up from a nap.
Whether sitting in the stroller, walking between attendees’ legs, or cuddling on their laps, Lola-Pearl brought a smile to whoever she decided was worthy of her attention at that moment.
“She’s very intuitive with people,” Mengel says.
Lola-Pearl isn’t the only one cat in the life of Mengel; The former traveling nurse who lost her left leg in 2006 after years of surgery following a near-fatal car accident is the mother of seven felines, most of whom have disabilities.
“They find you, you don’t find them,” he says.
Lola-Pearl was found when she was just a few weeks old with her back legs completely entwined, unable to walk.
She was taken to specialists in Iowa who managed to splint her legs in an attempt to save them, but then decided that her left rear leg needed to be amputated.
Meanwhile, Mengel was in negotiations for the adoption of catand after Lola-Pearl recovered from surgery, Mengel officially adopted her.
After the obstacles Mengel went through, he deeply appreciates Lola-Pearl and the work they do together.
“It’s a really rewarding experience,” he says. “I get as much out of it as the people I visit.”