Welcome to our Yanni, a Therapy Cat, feature
After our introduction to I-CAT, we felt Therapy Cats needed to be put under the spotlight. Today we meet Anne and Yanni Ross. Anne Ross is an Associate Clinical Social Worker, and Yanni a lovely Flame Point Siamese who is one year old. They live in Foothill Ranch, Orange Co., CA in the United States.
Each of our interviews shows a different cat, owner and approach. The one thing they have in common is a commitment to bring cats into the therapy area in a bigger way. We are asking similar questions of all our Therapy Cats and their guardians. We hope you can get an idea of how each one approaches things like training, inspiration and background.
- These are not short posts, but they make fascinating reading. We want you to hear what our Pet Therapy Cats have to say. Their words will be of great value to those aspiring to be Therapy Cats and Therapy Cat Guardians. Please, read on….
What drew you and YANNI towards the world of Therapy Cats (TC’s)?
I’m a social worker with a specialization in Aging and I have always been a firm believer in the healing powers of cats. When my parents entered an assisted living facility, they were not able to take their cat, Patches. I took Patches in and would have taken her to visit them but it just never worked out. I looked for assisted living facilities that had resident cats, but the few that did were not the right fit for my parents. The scarcity of cats at these facilities has always bothered me.
For many years, I’ve been hoping to have a therapy cat, but until recently, none of my cats had the right temperament. Last year, I began volunteering for Southern California Siamese Rescue (SoCSR) as a transporter and foster. In April 2014, I pulled a flame point Siamese from a high kill shelter for SoCSR, bringing him home with me as a temporary foster. I named him Yanni. The more I got to know him, the more I realized that he had the ideal temperament for a therapy cat. It was Yanni himself who really led me to be seriously interested in AAT/AAI. (I am going to adopt him before beginning his TC training.)
Do TC’s get special training (or structured) training?
I have not yet participated in training, nor has Yanni. So I can only answer this from what I’ve learned from other sources rather than my own experience. However, I have called three different groups and asked questions as well as read the information on their websites. And it appears to me that there is a lack of training that is specifically designed for cats. What I have seen appears to be dog training/evaluations adapted to cats. Cats are evaluated at the same time as dogs in two groups I investigated. This does not sound like special training to me.
What is the biggest challenge you and Yanni have faced?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced:
Deciding which group to train with! This decision boils down to three issues:
2.) the group’s attitudes towards cats, and
3.) the group’s attitudes towards mental health professionals who use TCs in their work.
The organizations I investigated only offered insurance for volunteers. I am hoping that Yanni will not only make volunteer appearances in facilities but ALSO work with me in my office (pet bereavement support group, etc). Representatives of the groups that I contacted seemed to assume that mental health professionals who are using TCs in office settings with clients will exploit their cats to make money. I found this very offensive.
The biggest challenge Yanni faces?
Perhaps learning to override his instinctive fight or flight response and trust me when he is frightened by new things or new experiences. However, he’s doing pretty well with this so far. Another challenge might be to learn to rein in his impetuousness and playfulness when visiting elderly people. This will come with maturity, I think. Time will tell as he has not yet interacted with elders.
What does being a TC team mean to you both? What are the best things about being a TC?
What it means to me:
To me, volunteering with Yanni is a way of being of service to others who may be less fortunate. Being of service to others is part of who I am. AAT/AAI is a way of bringing joy, healing and the comfort of touch to people who are touch-deprived and marginalized by society. Also, its simply a way to share my love of cats with others.
I am hoping that eventually Yanni will be able to visit assisted living facilities and nursing homes. This will allow me to be around elders, which is something I enjoy. All of the elders in my family are deceased, and sometimes I miss interacting with them. So taking Yanni to these places may be comforting for me as well.
Because I am a social worker, having a TC may also prove meaningful in that I may be able to educate facility and agency administrators about the value of cats in AAT/AAI while dispelling myths about them as well.
What it means to us both— a way to deepen our connection
The unofficial visits Yanni has been on to pet food shops, PetSmart and the vet have an effect that I did not anticipate—they are intensifying our bond. When we were in PetSmart, the fish tank pumps all went off at once, making a loud bubbling noise that scared Yanni. He tried to run the length of his leash, but stopped and calmed down when he heard my voice. As a result of this kind of experience, Yanni is learning that I pick him up and protect him when he is frightened. As a stray. Yanni had been abused. When I first got him from the shelter, he was afraid of my hands. So, to have him trust me so much that he will disconnect his instinct to flee when frightened is deeply touching.
The best things about being a therapy cat from Yanni’s perspective:
The amount of exercise it provides is invaluable. Yanni is a young cat (about 1 year old) with lots of energy. Going on visits gives him exercise beyond what he can get in my tiny apartment. When he doesn’t get enough exercise, Yanni tries to wrestle with my other cat, Petunia, who is 17. She makes it quite clear that she doesn’t want to rough house with him! After visits, Yanni is often tuckered out. He goes off for a nap rather than trying to stir things up with Petunia, and he is more apt to play gently with her when he has had enough exercise.
The opportunities for desensitization AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) provides are really important. Yanni’s visits give him lots of exposure to different experiences, different people and different objects, which, if he remained in foster care, would make him even more adoptable than he already is. Just today, I took him to my vet, where he was able to listen to large barking dogs across the hall that scared him, at home he hears only little dogs barking. Gradually, just sitting in my lap or in the carrier, listening to the dogs bark helped Yanni get desensitized so he was less afraid.
Finally, AAT gives Yanni a job, a purpose that is perfectly suited to his temperament.He loves people and exploring new places and new things.. His energy, which is sometimes hectic, changes after a visit— he is calm, peaceful and radiates contentment. He is also a caregiver cat, who likes to keep track of both cats and people. Yanni’s new job suits him well. As soon as he is in his carrier with his harness on, he starts purring.
Do you have a special routine on Therapy days, special equipment you use/wear/travel in?
Although Yanni has not yet made official visits, I have been taking him places on my own. I have a special red harness and leash that he wears, and I use one specific carrier. I tell him we are going “visiting” when I put the harness on—and he even steps through the harness on his own.
Things I believe TC groups need to do to be more successful:
- Recognize that mental health (MH) professionals may have their own TCs. I have seen AAT websites that that appear to assume that MH professionals are only interested in having AAT teams come into their offices to interact with their psychotherapy clients. I have seen no information for MH professionals who want to have their own TCs – even just to refer them elsewhere
- Promote the idea that MH professionals interested in AAT could train their own TCs.
- Provide feline-centric training created especially for cats’ unique needs and presented by cat-centric instructors, rather than by dog trainers who expect cats to act like dogs and penalize them when they do not.
- Seek relationships with cat rescue groups and shelters to see if fosters and other volunteers would be interested in using their foster/rescue cats as therapy animals. This would help cats get adopted, it would promote both the rescue group and the TC group.
- Provide insurance covering both volunteers AND mental health professionals using TCs during psychotherapy sessions. The fact that therapists cannot get insurance through AAT groups may be preventing them from participating.
- Include mental health professionals on their boards in addition to veterinarians and animal trainers, lawyers, accountants, etc. Currently, I have seen only two groups with mental health professionals on their boards. Mental health professionals with TCs can provide the most highly developed form of AAT available for the most impaired populations. AAT provided by a mental health professional may be reimbursable by insurance. MH professionals have great potential to help the use of cats as AAT/AAI pets become standard practice.
- To have the human side of the team trained by professionals just like the feline half of the team whenever possible. Veterinarians and animal trainers/behaviorists assess, train and evaluate TDs and TCs but there appear to be few mental health professionals (who are specialists in human behavior) helping to train the human part of the team. First, Therapists’ interviewing and diagnostic skills could help identify people who may be unable able to function appropriately in certain facilities or with certain clients. Next, they can also educate volunteers about compassion fatigue and stress management as well as serve as a referral source. Finally, mental health professionals can accurately educate AAT teams about the unique needs and characteristics of the population being visited (Alzheimer’s patients, autistic children, etc). I have seen videos on YouTube of AAT/AAI session suggesting that some groups are not adequately training their volunteers to communicate effectively with dementia patients. This disturbs me.
- Mental health professionals with TCs could also help open doors for AAT/AAI with cats—and correct misconceptions among administrators of the facilities that TCs visit. Unlike laypersons, mental health professionals have immediate credibility at every facility that TCs visit—because virtually all of these facilities already employ psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors or social workers. A mental health professional who has personal experience working in the type of facility and population that TCs visit could open doors that remain shut to laypersons lacking credibility.
Has anything funny every happened while you have been working?
During Yanni’s unofficial visits as a wanna-be therapy cat, he often gets into funny situations because he is very curious and very bold about approaching new people and objects. At an adoption event we attended in a big cat show auditorium, I allowed another volunteer to take him for a walk on his leash around the hall. He ended up taking her up the steps onto the stage while a woman was announcing the winners of raffle tickets! Yanni got underneath the curtains at the back of the stage, making lots of noise as he stuck his head and paws in paper bags full of stuff looking for treats! I had to go up the steps behind the announcer, pick Yanni up and carry him off the stage. That’s the funniest thing that’s happened so far.
*** Yanni and Anne’s Links ***
Yanni has a newly established Facebook presence to document his training and offer information on Therapy Cats.
Anne Ross ACSW
Facebook Page Anne Ross, Holistic Social Worker. She posts many things about AAT/AAI on it. Anyone who wants to contact me can call.
Anne’s Independent web page